‘Is This Real Life?’ A Wall of Fire Robs a Russian River Town of its Nonchalance

California is burning. And if explosive wildfires and evacuations become the new reality under climate change, Guerneville’s summer paradise is over.

Aug 20, 2020
A firetruck drives along a closed Interstate 80 as flames from the LNU Lightning Complex fire continue to spread in California on August 19, 2020.

A firetruck drives along a closed Interstate 80 as flames from the LNU Lightning Complex fire continue to spread in California on August 19, 2020. Credit: JOSH EDELSON/AFP via Getty Images

GUERNEVILLE, California—Days before the raging wildfire threatening to destroy western Sonoma County started, the big worry among Guerneville residents was that our little town might just be too popular.

Tourists from all over the San Francisco Bay area and beyond were crowding the Russian River beach towns, with Guerneville, the biggest (pop. 4,800) chief among them. They jammed the four-block downtown, the narrow, two-lane main road and the Safeway store, sparking fears of a coronavirus outbreak.

Still, the complaints came with a side of pride. Who could blame city refugees for flocking to Guerneville? Nestled amid majestic redwood forests, it's a love song to nature, with idyllic summer weather—warm, never hot, breezy, never humid—and air so refreshing that taking a deep breath feels like drinking in health. 

Or it did.

Ash fell from the sky like gray snow flurries when the evacuation order came Tuesday night, forcing the entire town—in all, 12,000 residents around the region—to flee. I woke up my snoring English bulldog, Harley, cranky and confused, loaded a backpack with my laptop and  phones and her favorite squeaky toys and didn't look back. Just as in accounts from people in Paradise, the wooded town in Northern California obliterated by the Camp Fire in 2018, all the roads out of town—two—were jammed. We crawled through the smoke-choked air, windows up, reached the 101 freeway nearly an hour later, and dispersed to hotels and the homes of friends and family. I drove 75 miles south, to San Francisco.

'A Lightning Siege'

The giant fire wall looming over the coastal ridges north of Guerneville, completely uncontained two days later, has fouled the skies with smoke for miles around. On Wednesday, fires flaring across five Bay Area counties combined to give Northern California the worst air quality in the world, according to a report by PurpleAir, a Utah company that measures airborne particulate matter in real time.

 But smoky air is the least of Guerneville's worries. The greatest is the fire itself. On Thursday, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) officials called the fire, dubbed the Walbridge Fire, the most worrisome among the cluster of lightning-sparked blazes in Northern California known as the LNU Lightning Complex. The complex includes fires in Vacaville (contained on Thursday) and near Lake Berryessa, west of Sacramento.

Flames and smoke overtake a tree as the LNU Lightning Complex fire continues to spread in Fairfield, California on August 19, 2020.

Flames and smoke overtake a tree as the LNU Lightning Complex fire continues to spread in Fairfield, California on August 19, 2020. Credit: JOSH EDELSON/AFP via Getty Images

Whether they can contain the Walbridge Fire depends a lot on which way the wind blows.

Fires are raging up and down California, sparked by a combination of record heat and nearly 11,000 lightning strikes over 72 hours—a "lightning siege"—as officials have called it. On Tuesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom blamed the new reality of extreme weather on climate change and declared a state of emergency. Since then, the situation has gotten worse, with fires growing in number and size.The acreage burned and evacuations ordered have been changing so rapidly that they become outdated within hours after being reported.

In Guerneville, the Walbridge Fire feels both like an existential threat and an augur of things to come. The town may survive this fire, but what about the next one, or the one after that? If explosive wildfires and evacuations become the new reality under climate change, Guerneville's summer paradise is over. Our wooden cabins and cottages, some, like mine, nearly 100 years old, are tinder. Lately, neighbors have joked that about my constant raking and sweeping leaves, a fool's errand under the redwoods and bay trees. It's true, but up until evacuation, I kept raking, thinking it might save my Sears kit cabin one day. 

Winter has always been the lousy season, the price we pay for summer. It brings relentless rains for days, weeks, on end. From time to time, the rains overwhelms the river and the creeks, causing floods that bring world-wide attention. Residents kayak down the streets, even swim.

Last year, the worst flood in 22 years came at the tail end of the rainy season, in late February, wrecking several businesses and homes and causing a major nuisance to the rest. Guerneville is a laid-back town of creative types, weekenders and working-class families, some going back to its logging days in the late 1800s. Long-time residents say last year's flood was as bad as any they had experienced. I had cement mixers, car parts and the head of a mannequin float onto my property, all slimed with mud so thick you could brick a wall with it.

People were still recovering eight months later, when Guerneville, like most of Sonoma County, was evacuated because of the Kincade Fire in Geyserville, 28 miles away—the worst in California in the 2019 fire season and the worst in Sonoma County history. It was also the first fire that prompted an evacuation in Guerneville in over 40 years. 

Flames surround Lake Berryessa during the LNU Lightning Complex fire in Napa, California on August 19, 2020.

Flames surround Lake Berryessa during the LNU Lightning Complex fire in Napa, California on August 19, 2020. Credit: JOSH EDELSON/AFP via Getty Images

The fire was never a major threat, and like some of my neighbors, I even considered staying, but PG&E had cut the electricity. Coming in mid-autumn, not far from the first rains, few people worried about there being another fire any time soon afterwards. With this new fire, we've lost our nonchalance. People are openly questioning the wisdom of living in a forest, bringing up the devastation of the Camp Fire in Paradise, also a forested town with limited escape routes. 

No one who loves Guerneville wants to leave. But if it is changing from a paradise to something more like the town of Paradise, it's worth considering at a time of capricious weather events.

Lynda Hopkins, the county supervisor for western Sonoma County, is hearing from a lot of anxious residents. Her account sums up the town mood.

"Sadly, we have had residents leave because they're finally at the breaking point," she said. "I'm already hearing similar comments as a result of the Walbridge Firethat people want to move out of Sonoma County, even out of California altogether. I'm also hearing disbelief. People almost feel like they're watching an apocalyptic movie, asking themselves—is this real life?"

My hope is that I have the choice—that I have a home to return to, and can then decide whether to stay or go.

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