COMING HOME TO THE “10 POUND FIRE”
It was the second Tuesday of our October fires. As I drove up Broadway toward the Sonoma Plaza on my way home from our daughter’s house in the East Bay, I started to weep, then cry, and it wasn’t from the smoke.
What got me was reading the 16 handmade signs that were stuck into the lawn in front of City Hall, all expressing thanks to the first responders who had saved the historic town of Sonoma from the fires. The sign that first made me reach for the tissues was white with a big red heart that read, “The love in the air is thicker than the smoke.” And, indeed, it still is.
And yet, as hard as the nearly 1,000 firefighters who came from as far away as Australia tried, we still lost 450 homes in Sonoma Valley. I venture to say that every one of us knows someone who lost their entire material world in the fires. Kids lost teddy bears, balls and bikes; grown-ups lost photos, passports and family treasures. Most of us lost a sense of security.
The overarching thing that those who came to aid, and those who required their help, had in common was the need to eat—in order to survive, both physically and emotionally.
Never before tested in such a manner, the community of Sonoma Valley rose to the occasion, coming together to take care of each other in many ways, especially through the preparing and serving of nourishing meals. So well fed were the firefighters in the area that many of them began referring to the October 2017 fires as “the 10-Pound Fire.” Not because their hoses weighed 10 pounds, but because they gained 10 pounds, stoked by Sonoma’s fine foods, while fighting the fires.
It’s hard to say exactly where or when the feeding efforts began, or with whom, but they quickly became a groundswell, with no money exchanging hands, only care.
On the first Monday, the Basque Boulangerie began offering free coffee and pastries as the café quickly became “ground zero” for hard-to-come-by information. Even without electricity, baking in their wood-burning oven, the Basque continued for days to make and give away coffee and pastries.
Sam Morphy, owner of The Red Grape on the Sonoma Plaza, with his son-in-law and former Green Bay Packer Tony Moll and fellow Rotarian J.J. Abodeely, cooked and delivered more than 1,000 pizzas a day to evacuation shelters including Sonoma Valley High School, fire stations and the Arnold Field parking lot, a staging area for out-of-town firefighters.
Saul Gropman at Café LaHaye organized a special dinner, and toward the end of service announced that dinner was on him. After LaHaye’s power went out, Roger Rhoten of the Sebastiani Theatre wheeled his generator over so Gropman and staff could continue to feed people. Sadly, in the process, the theater’s safe was broken into and robbed of a few thousand precious dollars.
At the instigation of owner Darius Anderson, Ramekins Culinary School, Events & Inn immediately turned itself into a shelter, setting up cots in the ballroom and feeding anyone who came in. Ramekins’ General Manager Victoria Campbell and Chef Kyle Kuklewski and their teams were onsite around the clock to make sure all who needed it had food, and shelter. Food already prepped for upcoming events, including a bartender symposium organized by Edible Marin & Wine Country that was scheduled to take place at Ramekins’ sister property, Tyge William Cellars at Cornerstone, on that very Monday, was converted into meals for evacuees, first responders and volunteers.
The first day that Sonoma Valley High School opened as an evacuation center, Rob Larman towed his Cochon Volant Smokehouse BBQ’s wood-burning smoker over and started barbecuing, while Saddles Steakhouse and MacArthur Place staff pushed rollaway beds and trays of food down the block to the high school.
The Red Grape quickly became the food coordinating center until the task became so large and so complex that it was moved to Sondra Bernstein’s Suite D, where Bernstein coordinated more than 50 local and Bay Area chefs who wanted to lend a hand, bringing whatever food they had in refrigerators and freezers (many now without electricity), and thousands of pounds of donated foodstuffs.
Sign of the Bear owners Steve and Laura Havlek delivered ingredients to Suite D to be prepped and cooked onsite, or handed off to others like TIPS Tri-Tips Trolley owners Susie and Andrew Pryfogle, who cooked at the Kenwood and Glen Ellen firehouses. Brannon Fetzer, owner of Q Craft BBQ, delivered ribs, barbecue beans and tamales to the El Verano School when it was converted into an evacuation shelter.
Giulio Tempesta of Umbria Glen Ellen and Ari Weisswasser of Glen Ellen Star cooked for locals and firefighters as long as they could, while flames continued to close the circle around downtown Glen Ellen and they, too, had to be evacuated.
Sonoma Market jumped in to help with the help of Abodeely, Moll and city councilman and Rotarian Gary Edwards. Kate Stille—who, with her husband, Eric, owns the Sonoma Market, as well as the Glen Ellen Market and the three Nugget Markets located in Marin—together with Sondra Bernstein, gave Edwards loads of credit for his 4am daily lists of food needs and the gathering and distributing of tons of food around the valley with Abodeely.
Kate Stille describes the first day of the fires when the company’s “reset crew” (they’re the ones who move everything around a store so you can’t find it—actually, the “resetting” is designed to make you see other items instead of just heading for your favorites) had trouble getting to Sonoma due to closed highways. Stille’s son Riley, who oversees the Nugget Markets in Marin and the two Sonoma stores, zoomed up from San Francisco and found a skeleton crew of only seven at Sonoma Market—many staffers couldn’t get to work, were evacuated or needed to stay home to protect their families.
The team worked quickly to evaluate which of their vendors could deliver much-needed food and other supplies as soon as possible. Nugget’s crew of “Get ’Er Done Boys” was also called in to help. Soon thereafter, around five pallets of food and water were placed on the front porch of their Glen Ellen Village Market for people to take as needed, free of charge. What items were the most needed? It turns out water, food, caffeine, sugar sodas and Pedialyte, but no coffee because too much coffee was giving first responders indigestion and other side effects not welcome on the fire line.
Most of the store’s customers during the fires would rush in for “grab and go” meals, understanding that cooking a lavish meal at home was not on the immediate horizon.
Rotary funded loads of food gift cards for displaced locals for which Sonoma Market also gave a 10% discount.
In total, Stille and Sonoma Market Store Manager Cody Moody said they moved 37 pallets, or two truckloads, of food to shelters and emergency services, including 3,000 pounds of meat and produce to Emergency Services, Suite D and other local groups and individuals.
Chef Andrew Cain of the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn’s Santé restaurant and his crew cooked loads of food and took it to nearby La Luz Center to feed the more than 1,000 people displaced in the Springs neighborhood. Rotary of Sonoma Valley and La Luz collected packaged food and offered it from a pop-up “pantry” in an unoccupied storefront in a neighborhood shopping center.
On November 19, the Sonoma Mission Inn hosted an elegant openair pancake breakfast in front of Sonoma City Hall to honor the first responders. More than 1,000 enjoyed free breakfast, and bubbles provided by Sonoma’s Gloria Ferrer Caves and Vineyards.
And then there was Facebook and their food service team that prepared and sent 5,000 meals a day to sites in Sonoma, as well as Napa. Here, they arrived via San Francisco chef Traci des Jardin’s trucks parked at the Springs Community Hall for the “No Pay Café/Café Gratis” organized by Sheana Davis of The Epicurean Connection, with lots of help from Mara Roche of Roche Winery and others. Facebook continued to distribute food through the end of 2017.
LOCAL FARMS AFFECTED
When the fires were eventually contained, it was time to assess our losses and begin the work of rebuilding.
In addition to the devastating loss of homes, the fires damaged several local farms. Oak Hill Farm in Glen Ellen lost barn and housing structures, as well as food and flower crops. Bee-Well Farms, an organic farm started recently by Melissa and Austin Lely, lost everything. Flatbed Farm, also in Glen Ellen, lost buildings, including the tin barn where they held their farm stand. Gary and Rebecca Rosenberg lost their Sonoma Lavender Farm, their barn and their home.
These farms are vital sources of locally grown food and we hope that the owners will be able to rebuild, and that the community will support them in their efforts to do so. As of late January, Bee-Well was running a Go Fund Me campaign to fund their rebuilding efforts. http://www.gofundme.com/missys-homebusiness. If you’d like to help, check out the websites or Facebook pages of these farms to find out how.
Other important ag-related properties that were damaged include Dunbar School’s school garden, which was incinerated, including an irrigation system that melted despite being buried under nine inches of soil because the fire there allegedly reached 2,300°.
Perhaps the most famous agricultural structure destroyed by the fires is the historic former Stornetta Dairy building (and family homes) at Napa Road and 121. Laura Chenel also raised her goats and made chèvre on the property, now totally collapsed into nearly flattened and blackened piles. Blessedly, the property was not inhabited when it burned.
Knowing that displaced residents would be eager to start rebuilding their lives in new homes, Laura Havlek of Sign of the Bear kitchenware shop and Mara and Phil Kahn of Jacob’s Kitchen Outlet donated hundreds of kitchen items, all assembled into more than 100 kitchen replacement kits to be distributed by Rotary members. Read about Sondra Bernstein’s brilliant cook book-raiser below.
And then comes Mother Nature herself to the rescue. Green fuzz has already sprouted on burned terrain throughout Sonoma Valley, while everyone waits to see which vines and trees will survive. It might be my imagination, but I do think I see a little green reappearing on some burned oak trees.
In an odd twist, at the time I was writing this story, many of us were noticing seemingly odd simultaneous blooming, possibly due to temperature and bad air deposits, that were bringing us roses, geraniums, camellias, rhododendrons, broccoli and cauliflower all at once. And even tiny bud-break was seen on Twin Vines Vineyard’s Merlot vines.
Sonoma Valley will never forget October 2017. The fires affected us all, whether or not we suffered direct losses. We all lost a piece of our hearts with everyone who did.