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for people who care about the West

What it’s like to fight off fire to save your home

As neighbors evacuated, one family stayed behind.

 

Early on a Monday morning, my wife, Ina, and I woke to someone rapping on our door. Philo, our 8-month-old Westie pup, slept on, undisturbed. “Ed, you’d better get out here,” my neighbor yelled. I got a bathrobe and opened the door. I could see the night sky glowing red at the mountain rim horizon to the southeast, and also to the south. It was 1:30 a.m. “You have got to get out of here,” the neighbor said. “The fire is just over the ridge!”

For five years, we’ve lived on Tomki Road, near the head of the Russian River, about 30 minutes outside the small town of Willits. Steep, wooded mountains rise from either side of our property. I spent 10 years building our home from trees on our property. Now, my wife has advancing Alzheimer’s. Our adult son lives 1,000 feet to the south, in the cabin he grew up in. We went down and shared what news we had.

We knew that we were in a mandatory evacuation space, but we were loath to leave. Our son refused to go. Still, we loaded our Subaru Outback with our “one carload” of survival/save items and turned our goats loose. We left our elderly dog Woofie, and took Philo.

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Edward Dick, 69, and his wife, Ina Gordon, 75, with their dogs, Philo and Woofie, at their home in Redwood Valley, California, after they waited out wildfire despite a mandatory evacuation order.
Mason Trinca

We drove over the canyon rim, passing 20 to 50 cars parked along the one-lane dirt road, abandoned by people evacuating. We drove through water holes, over and around the boulders of the non-maintained stream crossings and past a California Highway Patrol officer parked at the base of our road. We waved, and he waved back.

When we reached the evacuation center, there was coffee brewing, hot water for tea, and tables around which dozens of people sat or stood, many in shock. While we waited for news about our home, many more people arrived, including the 20 or so monks from the Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery. Three generations from a family winery near our home arrived, too. We heard that the winery, the office and many surrounding residences had all burned, although the main house did not. At dawn, a trailer from Red Cross arrived with supplies, cots, blankets.

But we couldn’t stay. Our son was still on the mountain, and our irreplaceable home, with its historic Spanish Civil War posters and a piano I had learned to play after we moved in. We decided to return, despite the mandatory evacuation orders. When we passed the Highway Patrol officer, coming from an unexpected direction, we waved and he, again, waved back. In the morning light, we could see the fire line advancing down the eastern side of the canyon and the glow to the south.

On that first day back, sheriff’s deputies visited, along with a friend from church, and told us we had to leave, that the fire was advancing over both ridges. We refused. Twice more they returned, telling us we had to leave, that we would be killed, and that I was “selfish.” They said we were using up their time, meaning that others’ homes would burn and people would die. All that would be on my head, they said. I confirmed that I was being selfish, that God had been good to me, that I thought I had been good to God, and that I was OK with meeting my maker. Our friend tried to convince my wife to leave, but she refused. Finally, they left us alone.

We began preparing to fight the fire, still slowly advancing, knowing we’d have to sustain our home absent electricity or any means of communicating with the outside world. The pipe that brought water from over the mountain had not yet burned, so Ina and I began filling garbage cans and five-gallon buckets and placing them around our home and barn. We’d built the home with some thought of protecting it from forest fire, so it was fairly defensible, but the barn, sided in old dry wood, would be a bigger problem. As Ina and the dogs retreated inside, I hosed down the sides of the barn until the water shut off. A fire technician suggested I start cutting some additional trees along the west side of our home. I got a generator operating to save our freezer and refrigerator, using only extension cords, so that firefighters would not be jeopardized by an unexpectedly alive electrical system. Meanwhile, my son looked after his own home.

Edward Dick's dog sniffs at vegetation that was removed from the perimeter of his property.
Mason Trinca

Through Tuesday, there were few firefighters available to fight the blaze, just the local department, and a crew from Anderson Valley, 75 minutes away. The huge fire raging through Santa Rosa, a sizable city 75 miles to the south, had drawn all the available units. Eventually, a crew from Chamberlain Creek Conservation Camp, where inmates live and conduct fire and conservation work, arrived. They helped me continue the work I had begun, moving the forest an additional 15 feet from my home. We worried about a firestorm. One technician told me, “If you see us all driving out of here, take a hint.” We had the car ready to leave at a moment’s notice.

Tuesday evening, I saw a great red glow to the south, and I went to investigate on foot. About a quarter mile away, I saw a neighbor’s house ablaze on the mountainside. Walking up the driveway, I could see the joists in the wall still burning. The neighbor was a bookseller, and his thousands of books added to the inferno. I could see the slow-moving ground fire continuing toward our home. I walked up the long driveway to the house next door. The fire had curved around the west side of his home and was moving toward it. I had a shovel in my hands, and I knew that I could try to defend his home, which was not yet burning — but only if I neglected my own. As I walked home, I met a local engine with crew waiting, and I told them what I had seen. “I’m not taking this unit up that drive,” the driver said. The drive was 6 feet wide, sloped and had no turnaround for a vehicle the size of a fire truck.

I slept in fits, an hour or half hour here and there, as the fire crept closer. Late at night, I saw the burst of red that was my neighbor’s home catching fire. At about 3:30 Wednesday morning, the flames came gently down to our home, burning along the ground. I was concerned about a tanoak that had fallen a year ago. I had cut it up for its firewood, but many of the dry smaller limbs were still there. Fortunately, the inmate crew had pulled some of it out the previous day, and the over-story did not catch fire. The breeze was gentle and often seemed to be blowing back into the fire. I thanked God for its gentleness and thought about those who had lost so much.

The next days brought firefighters from throughout the West: crews from Oregon, Arizona, Utah, from all over California, the always-present CAL FIRE crews, U.S. Forest Service crews, supervised inmate crews from around Northern California, and heavy equipment contractors who brought bulldozers on flatbeds that occupied the open meadow to our north. At one point, there were several thousand firefighters in our several square miles. During the days, helicopters and planes, including large jets, dropped water and retardant, as the slow but stubborn fire continued to burn into, and around, the monastery nearby. Because of that determined fight to save the monastery and the homes on the east side of the canyon, the mountain to our east never fully burned, which meant that our barn was not in significant jeopardy. Firefighters manned shovels and other tools to dig in fire lines, so I could stop. I kept an eye on the burned areas around our home and our neighbor’s. Fire pushed toward my neighbor’s home several times; I sounded the alarm so nearby crews could stop it. After the fire burned past our house, we had gentle days with full nights of sleep, and myriad opportunities to thank all the people coming our way. We have dozens of signatures of firefighters, including inmates, in our guestbook.

Edward Dick feeds one of his goats at his home. He used his goat to help maintain the undergrowth and vegetation on the hillside near his house, which helped mitigate the spread of the Redwood Valley Fire.
Mason Trinca

Late in the week, I saw a fire technician using a handheld device and asked him if I could call a family member. This was the first word our family had that we were there, our house was secure, and we were safe. Fire crews carried our gasoline can into town, and brought us gas for our generator. Mid-week, they brought us drinking water as well, as we had only the garbage cans we’d filled earlier to drink.

The sheriff’s deputy said that I was selfish for staying. But neither my friend’s house nor my son’s home would be here if we had not. Ina and I were able to care for each other with relatively little stress. We felt like we had a great deal of control over the immediate circumstances of our life, and we were not traumatized. In similar circumstances, I would do the same thing again.

Just before the evacuation order was lifted, I ventured to a burned area a mile and a half south of us. The devastation was incredible. It looked like a scene from a war: Chimneys, sheet metal, appliances, burned-out vehicles were all that remained for long stretches. The occasional house had survived, usually because of its landscaping. Black-and-white tree trunks spoke of a place that was once forest. The place I had driven past for 30 years was unrecognizable.