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Tomki Road Fire from 15870

(Author’s intro: My wife and I and our son were the only civilians on Tomki Road during the period of "mandatory evacuation." This is our story from my perspective. We still have no phone service. Although AT&T has given us a cell phone, there is no cell service in our canyon. We have no internet service. This comes to you from the Ukiah library. I served five years as Licensed Local Pastor with the Methodist Church in Philo.)

A neighbor was rapping on our door knocker while my wife and I slept Sunday night. Philo, our eight month old Westy pup, too slept, assuming that the raucous activity would not interrupt our dreams. “Ed, you’d better get out here!” I got a bathrobe and opened the door. “Look over there!” 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 am. “You got to get out of here, the fire is just over the ridge!” We’ve lived in this house now five years; I had spent ten years building it from standing timber, my wife with advancing Alzheimer’s, our adult son living 1000 feet to the south in the cabin in which he grew up — we were loathe to leave. We walked to our son’s cabin. He was up. And we shared what news we had, mostly from the community radio station. We all knew that we were in a mandatory evacuation area, and that our son said that he was not leaving. We told him we would take the back road to Willits — with seven stream crossings.

We were told that many cars were lining the road at the top—the two wheels drive vehicles, unable to traverse the “road.” We loaded our Subaru Outback with our “one carload” survival/save items, turned our goats loose, left our aged “Woofie,” and took Philo. We drove over the top, passing 20 to 50 cars parked along the one lane dirt road. We saw one woman sitting in her car, and we asked if she would like a ride to Willits. She did not, and told us of many who had left their cars and had gotten into the back of four wheel drive pickups to evacuate.

We drove comfortably through the water holes, over and around the boulders of the non-maintained stream crossings, past a CHP car parked at the base of Tomki Road five miles east of Willits on the Hearst Road. We waved, and he did too.

We drove on into Willits to the evacuation center announced on the radio next to the police station. At the evacuation center there was coffee brewing, but not yet brewed, hot water for tea, and tables around which 50 to 75 people sat or stood, many experiencing shock. I brought in the food and fruit juice we had packed, and my guitar.

We stayed in the evacuation center for about six hours with no idea if our home had survived. During this time, many additional people arrived, including the 20 or so Monks from the Abhayaguiry Buddhist Monastery to the north of our home. Three generations of a family winery less than two miles south of us were there, and we heard that the winery, the office, and many surrounding residences had all burned, but that maybe the main residence had not. A trailer from Red Cross arrived about dawn, and supplies, cots, and blankets were being unloaded.

Our son, remaining on the mountain, and the irreplaceable home I had built, including historical Spanish Civil War posters, and a piano on which I had learned to play during our five years there, drew us to decide to return home, and face what came, on the ground.

This region was under mandatory evacuation which caused us concerns regarding the CHP Officer we had passed by on our way out. Coming from the unexpected direction, he was caught unawares, and as we drove past him, I waved, and he waved back. Upon our arrival home in the morning daylight, we could see where the fire lines were advancing on the opposite side of our canyon from the East, and could see the glow to the South, with the fire almost not moving.

We were told that 40 mile per hour winds, and more, had rushed up Tomki Road giving people only minutes to abandon their homes. But the winds never came up much beyond the winery that burned. As we have discussed this matter since, there are seldom sustained winds in the bottom of this canyon, mostly only up on the ridges. So the firestorm that had taken so many of our neighbors’ homes, and several lives, was basically over by the time we had awoke, and a gentle, slowly moving fire without control, continued to burn during the following week during which our neighbors were all gone under “mandatory evacuation.”

On this first day “back,” we were visited by Sheriff’s Deputies who told us that we must leave, that the fire was advancing over both ridges (from the Potter Valley fire on our East, and the Redwood Valley fire, from our South, and West). We had been in continuing discussion with our son, who was adamant about staying, and occasional discussions with fire technicians regarding defensible space, and we were issued a poster stapled to our fence indicating our presence, the availability of 2500 gallons of water, and “100 feet of defensible space.” This poster pretty much determined that our residence would survive, absent the arrival of heavy winds which would force the fire into the forest’s over-story, and create a firestorm which would not be survivable for anything.

We were visited twice more by representatives of the Sheriff’s department who told us we had to leave, that we would otherwise be killed, and that I was “selfish,” requiring their time to deal with us, the effect of which was that other’s homes would burn, and deaths would come which would be on my head.

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. A friend from Church who was with the Sheriff’s Deputy asked if he could speak to Ina, my wife, and I said, Of course, and he tried to convince her to return to Ukiah and stay the night in their home. Ina affirmed that she could not leave.

Having decided we would be staying, we began preparations to fight the fire, always slowly advancing, and to sustain our home absent electricity or any means of communicating with the outside world. Our water line over the mountain had not yet been burned by the fire, so we began filling garbage cans and five gallon buckets and placing them on all sides of our home and barn. Having built the home with some idea of defending it from a forest fire, it was fairly defensible, but the barn, sided in old dry wood, would be a bigger problem, particularly if the fire from the east came aggressively. I hosed down the sides of the barn, as long as the water supply remained. A fire technician suggested I cut some additional trees from the mountain along the west side of our home, and I began that process.

Through Tuesday, there were few firefighters available, just the local department, and then a crew from Anderson Valley, 75 minutes away, showed up.

A huge fire had been and was raging through Santa Rosa, a sizable city 75 miles to the South, and it was to there that available units were deployed at that time.

On Tuesday we got a fire crew of inmates from Chamberlin Creek who continued the work I had begun, moving the forest line an additional 15 feet from my home. I got a generator operating to save our freezer and refrigerator, using only extension cords, so that firefighting persons would not be jeopardized by an unexpected alive electrical system. We had about eight gallons of gasoline, so I monitored the temperature in the freezer closely, and ran the generator only part of the time.

I had been sleeping one to two hours at a time, watching the fire advance, going and consulting with our son, cooking us meals, talking with the increasing number of firefighting technicians. Our dog Philo was never more than three feet from me. Regarding the fear of a firestorm, one technician said: “If you see us all driving out of here, take a hint.”

We had the car ready to drive at a moment’s notice.

Tuesday evening I saw a great redness to our South, and I went to investigate. Walking about a quarter mile to our South, I saw T. & K.’s house ablaze up the mountainside. Walking up their driveway, I could see the joists in the wall still burning. A bookseller, T. had thousands of books that added to the inferno.

I could see the slow-moving ground fire continuing toward our home to the North.

I walked up the next property’s long driveway where fire moved on beyond T. & K.’s. I had a shovel in my hands and I knew that I could possibly defend H.’s home, not yet burning, but being approached from a fire that seemed to wrap itself around the west side of his home. But Ina was at our home, and I could not stay and defend that home.

Across the street from our son’s home was a local engine with crew waiting, and I told them what I had seen. The driver said “I’m not taking this unit up that drive.” The drive was six feet wide, 15 or 20% slope, about 1,000 yards long, and no turnaround for a vehicle the size of a firetruck.

Our son was working with a firefighter directing the fire and completing a burn off on the mountain across the creek from his cabin. I consulted with him, shared our love, and went home to Ina. Sleeping for a half hour to an hour at a time, as the fire clearly was getting closer, I saw the burst of red that was H.’s home going up, and awaited the blaze.

At about 3:30 am Wednesday morning, the fire came gently down to our home, burning along the ground, but not getting into the over-story much. I was concerned about a tanoak that had come down a year ago, which I had cut up for its firewood, but much of the smaller limbs were there and dry.

The Chamberlin Creek Inmate crew had pulled some of it out the previous day, and it did not flame so much that the over story would ignite. The breeze was gentle, and often seemed to be blowing back into the fire. I thanked God for its gentleness and contemplated those who had lost so much, and my own attachments. Standing beside me watching the fire was a firefighter from Anderson Valley.

The next days brought a host of firefighters from throughout the West. Contracting fire crews from Oregon, Arizona, Utah, and Fire Department crews from all over California, the always present CalFire crews, US Forest Service, supervised inmate crews from several additional facilities around Northern California, and heavy equipment contractors brought bulldozers on semi flatbeds that occupied the open meadow to our North.

During the days, helicopters, and planes, including large jets brought and dropped water and retardant, as the slow but stubborn fire continued to burn into, and around, the Monastery to our North East.

Because of that determined fight to save the main facilities of 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. Also, as the resources continued to be deployed (there were several thousand firefighters in our several square miles), the heavy work of putting in fire lines with bent shovels called “Rhinos” and other tools, shovels, mattocks, fire hoes, et al., meant that my contribution was keeping an eye on the burned areas around our home, and our neighbor’s.

Fire encroached my next neighbor’s home several times, and my seeing it and alarming a close by fire crew stopped it before it could reach the combustible cabin. The fire crews could not see everything always.

After the fire had burned past our house, we had gentle days with full night’s sleep, with myriad opportunities to show and express our appreciation for all the personnel coming our way. Half a dozen women worked in the crews, particularly CalFire, and we expressed our special appreciation to a woman Captain. We have dozens of signatures of firefighters, including inmates, in our home’s guestbook.

Only just before the mandatory evacuation was lifted for our area, did I venture to the burned area one and a half to three and a half miles south of us.

The devastation was incredible. It looked like a scene from war. Chimneys, sheet metal appliances, burned out vehicles were all that remained for long stretches. Occasionally a house would have survived, usually because of non-burnable landscaping. Black and white tree stems spoke of a once-forest. The place I had driven past for 30 years was un-recognizable.

Because my wife and my son and I remained in the area with a mandatory evacuation, we could not return if we left. We therefore spent the week incommunicado. Phones were out. We had discontinued our satellite internet service a month earlier, which could have kept us and our families connected since we had a generator. Cell towers were burned, but in our canyon, there has never been much cell service.

Late in the week, I saw a fire technician using a handheld device and asked him if I could call a family member. This then 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. We had enough eggs and milk to last the week. Our garden continued to produce fresh tomatoes, squash, and collards, so with our freezer, we ate well all week.

Midweek drinking water was given us which was great, as our water was reduced to the garbage cans we had filled before the water lines along the mountain were burned. Today, Thursday, the third day since mandatory evacuation was lifted, we put in a new water line on the mountain, and things are nearly back to normal. Phone service has not yet been restored, but we got a cell, and can make calls when we drive out off of Tomki.

The Sheriff’s Deputy said that I was selfish for staying. My friend’s house would not be here if we had not, my son’s surely would not be. Ina and I were able to care for each other with relatively little stress. We had a great deal of control over the immediate circumstances of our life, and we were not traumatized.

I was selfish. I would advise that people prepare for the potential for wildfire, and then consider carefully, the circumstances under which they might consider defying mandatory evacuation. There are aspects to functioning as a community which our society does not, in its pseudo-connectedness through facebucks, allow itself to look at, let alone see. Certainly mandatory evacuation is required in some circumstances. I don’t know that our civil authorities have a sophisticated understanding of just what those circumstances are.

As our Nation continues to blindly pursue war to obtain freedom from terror, the occasion of hearing the declaration that the Emperor Has No Clothes is pitifyingly rare. Consider.


  1. William Valley October 31, 2017

    Well spoken and an excellent read. I have always considered my self a law abiding man. One that has believed in order and the usefulness of government. With the fires and mandatory evacuations I found myself conflicted. Stories of men who stayed behind saving homes being heralded as heroes. Stories of well meaning property owners being treated as criminals for attempting to return. The truth is, the government is meant to function for the people, and to be governed by the people. Unfortunately it seems that in some situations local government becomes so self important, discounting the usefulness of the average citizen, that it hurts the same people they seem to be trying to protect.

    Some lessons I learned in all of this – Do not heed the mandatory evacuation orders as gospel, do not expect to be able to return after a short period of time, be prepared for the worst and hope for the best, and do not discount the usefulness of the average Joe who is armed only with a shovel.

  2. ML November 9, 2017

    There are lots of rules that don’t cover every situation, but in the long run work to our advantage. Stop signs, for one. I daresay not that many people would have the moxie to make this man’s informed decision.

    • Eric Sunswheat November 10, 2017

      There are lots of stop signs, that should be instead, yield signs. Better yet, some of these, should be ‘California stop’ signs, to legally slow and roll through an intersection safely and without getting a traffic violation ticket, or would that defund the new courthouse. And what is with those pedestrians cross walk concrete curb barrier obstacles in Ukiah. There are much better ways to paint mark roadways safely, without creating more vehicle hazards. Look at the counties around you, and get a breath of fresh air away from winter sunset deprived Ukiah, to boot away from alcoholism inclination. Hiccup.

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