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Guilt and Gratitude

Two weeks removed from the fires, a survivor grapples with his neighbors’ losses and his own good fortune.

Winemaker Pierre Birebent inspects a melted wine bottle among the burned-out remains of the Signorello Estate winery in Napa.

 

This is one of many stories about the North Bay fires published in the December issue of San Francisco. To read the rest, click here.

Today is October 23 and it’s eerily silent in St. Helena. The sky is blue, the air is crisp, only a hint of smoke lingers, and locals have replaced their masks with generous smiles and intimate hellos. This morning I drove down Napa Valley’s Highway 29, the same drive I made with my three-year-old son through falling ash as we fled the Atlas and Tubbs fires (we were sandwiched between the two) the morning of October 9, exactly two weeks ago. I drove by the Home Depot off Imola Avenue where I had raced through smokefilled aisles trying to find the last N95-rated masks. Now the fire is contained, and it’s time to repair and rebuild. And yet we still see flames at night in the distance. 

How do you decide what to take when you’re evacuating your home? Your eyes burn, all you can smell is smoke, and your adrenaline is making you as likely to damage the possessions you’re trying to save as get them to safety. We had already dropped our son off at my parents’ house about 50 miles away in Pleasant Hill when we returned to take what we could from our home. My wife and I argued briefly about what was and was not replaceable. She went for our photo albums while I started taking paintings off the walls. We both rushed to our son’s room and grabbed clothes and special things that were made for him when he was born. “Don’t forget my scooter,” he’d told us when we dropped him off with his grandparents. It was the only thing he asked for, and that little red scooter rode next to me on the front seat as we headed back to Pleasant Hill. I did not remember to knock on our neighbors’ doors. I didn’t check on them. It’s the first thing that I think of when I wake up every morning: that I was so focused on saving my things, on the safety of my family, that I didn’t even knock on their doors.

Over the next 10 days, we watched the news incessantly, receiving Nixle emergency alerts on our phones that showed the fire moving ever closer to our home and our family’s vineyards—and burning through the houses and wineries of our friends and colleagues. We were constantly confronted with speculation and exaggeration, always for the worse. Normally we sleep with our phones powered off, but those nights we left them on and within reach of our air mattress. Night after night, they buzzed with news of evacuations, road closures, and tragedy.

Each day, my wife and I drove from Pleasant Hill back to Napa Valley, waking up long before the sun rose, tiptoeing out in the dark to buy breakfast and supplies for the day. My exhausted parents watched our increasingly concerned and confused boy. On our drive, we frantically answered calls, trying to figure out where the fire was headed, if we could get to where we were going, and if the time had come to stay away completely. I knew my wife needed to be at her family winery, that she could not let her parents’ legacy, built over 35 years of their lives, burn. But—and I could not tell this to anyone else at the time—my primary concern was the unborn baby, only eight weeks along, that she took with her every day. Someday, perhaps, we’ll tell our baby the story of the fire, and hopefully by then be long rid of this haunting guilt.

The truth is, I feel guilty even writing this, because, despite rumors that swirled throughout the fire that our vineyards and barrels and tanks of unbottled wine had burned, everything our family owned is safe. Who am I to tell this story of tragedy and loss when ultimately I was faced with both and suffered neither? I was fortunate, very fortunate. That’s how most of us feel.

Do you know what Ray Signorello Jr. said when I asked how he was? “I feel very fortunate… my family is safe.” This despite the fact that the winery his family had built in 1986 on the East Silverado Bench, Signorello Estate, had burned to the ground. Justin Seidenfeld, the winemaker at Rodney Strong Vineyards in Healdsburg, lost his home less than 10 minutes after he and his family escaped. His parents’ home burned also. When I spoke with him, he said with relief that “everybody is safe and we’re together, and that’s what’s important.” Lisa Mattson’s is one of the few homes left standing in her Sonoma neighborhood, and through tears she told me that she was “one of the lucky ones…. I’m still alive.” Lauren Holton lived in Redwood Valley, a renter without renters’ insurance, and now must find a new, affordable home near her school in Santa Rosa. And yet the feeling that she conveyed to me was one of gratitude: “There were fatalities in my neighborhood. Knowing that my friends are safe and how much support we have from the community is what’s keeping me going.”

These heartbreaking stories of people who lost so much yet remain so positive are echoing through wine country and bringing our community together. You can almost feel the appreciation for life reverberate in the streets. We are banding together, hosting events to raise money and bring back the tourists, who are the lifeblood of this valley. It’s only been two weeks, and yet, if it weren’t for all the hand-painted signs thanking first responders and members of the community, you might forget for a moment the destruction that hit Napa Valley.

Drive up Highway 29 from downtown Napa to St. Helena, and the only sign that anything is different at all is the lack of traffic. Along the Silverado Trail, you’ll see black mountains and the scorched foundations of homes and wineries like Signorello where proud buildings stood just days ago. But these dark, empty spaces are surrounded by vineyards and wineries that are just as beautiful and vibrant as they have always been. The destruction is here, and it is easy to find if you look; thousands of homes and at least 43 lives were lost, and it will be many years before Napa Valley and Sonoma County are whole again. But we are healing. We are rebuilding. We have never felt stronger. Sadness and guilt are turning into hope, and hope is spreading like wildfire.

 

Ian Devereux White is the wine director for San Francisco and cofounder and vintner at Smith Devereux Wines in Napa Valley. His wife, Ariana, is the CEO of Peju, her family’s winery in Rutherford.

Originally published in the December issue of San Francisco 

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