on life, music etc beyond mainstream

2019 5 Nov

Sonoma County California Fires 2019

von: Brian Whistler Filed under: Blog | TB | 9 Comments

We were evacuated from my house last Saturday evening because of the threat of the Kincade Fire, which was due to be whipped up by a “wind event” predicted to arrive later that evening, continuing into the following day. The evacuation order came at 6:00 pm, precisely at the moment we had just finished packing my entire music studio into our two cars, along with a few cherished items, some clothes, essentials and some art works. We went to my partner Melissa’s place in Santa Rosa which still had power (PG&E was turning off power in order to prevent more fires,) and thought we would be safe there, spending a sleepless night with the crazy winds banging shrubbery against her windows and periodically being awakened by yet another sheriff’s evacuation warning on my cell phone, until early morning when Santa Rosa was also evacuated. So early ‪Sunday morning‬ we drove to the Whole Foods in nearby Petaluma because we couldn’t think of what to do next. The 101 freeway was packed with evacuees, all headed south; it looked like a scene from a cheesy sci fi apocalypse movie from the 90’s. When we arrived at Whole Foods, it was a wild scene, because it appeared many other west county folks had the same idea. I saw some of my musician friends there, bleary eyed, drinking coffee and milling about, not knowing where to go. We talked about our plans and made a few phone calls to friends, eventually landing in Berkeley where we stayed for a few days with one of my dearest friends.





Meanwhile the fires continued to burn largely uncontained, growing to over 78,000 acres, while over 5000 fireman hailing from 300 fire companies from all over the country battled the blaze and bravely protected little towns less than a mile west of the fires, and in some cases the fire was literally within a few hundred feet of swallowing up whole developments, as in the photo below. The fear was with the fierce Diablo winds blowing (gusting up to 100 mph,) the fire would jump the 101 freeway and land in our neck of the woods, an area that hasn’t burned since the 1940s, where it could get a foothold and sweep through everything in its path all the way to the sea. Around 90,000 structures were threatened – that’s why they evacuated west county all the way to the coast.

We know we have problems here: it’s a complex issue, with the urban/woodland interface that has grown up all over the area, and contrary to Trump’s blaming the state for poor forest management, for the most part it wasn’t the forests that were burning – up here it was mostly grassland and chaparral near the vineyards. And with some 33 million acres of forests state wide, about half of which are federally owned, it would be virtually impossible to “clean it all up“ because we’ve had wet winters the past couple years, which only increases the fuel load in summer, and it would take many millions (more likely billions) of dollars to clean it up, and it still probably wouldn’t be enough. And of course, our president doesn’t even acknowledge climate change, choosing instead to ignorantly blame California and because you know, we don’t like him.

And then we have problems with our power company PG&E, because they continue to put profits for their shareholders above maintaining their infrastructure. This was the reason for the Paradise fires in Butte County where so many people died – some folks got ahold of PG&E’s records that showed they deferred maintenance there for some 30 years. The same holds true for our area. Thus it was that a similar accident occurred here: a transmission tower failed. Two of my friends were in Geyserville the evening the fire broke out- at 9:30 PM they witnessed the explosion of the transmission tower high on a distant hilltop. Some people even caught it on video. At least this time PG&E is fessing up – last time they lied about it. Now they’re already in bankruptcy and even more people have lost their homes (around 400 structures this time, 1/2 of which were homes, nothing compared to the 10,000 structures we lost in 2017 but still …) This time almost everyone was evacuated and there were no lives lost. Kudos to Sherrif Esseck for declaring the largest evacuation (over 200,000 people) in Sonoma County history. Under the circumstances, it was the right thing to do.





Our friend in Berkeley had a family member who was also in need of a place to stay, so we had to leave and we stayed a couple more days with good friends in Brentwood out towards the Sacramento Delta. It was so peaceful and quiet out there. Except for the faint smell of smoke and the brown skies on the horizon, one would‘ve never known what was happening up north.

Evacuations were lifted Thursday afternoon and power finally came back on that night, but Melissa had had a mishap 2 days before – she scratched her cornea really badly and had to go to the emergency room. After that there were follow up visits to the ophthalmologist. So we were stuck in the East Bay until she saw the doctor one more time. My studio equipment was still over at the last house we stayed in Berkeley. So after her appointment we went back to my friend’s house, re-packed all of our stuff and finally headed home. Needless to say, it has been a very stressful experience for many of us. And this is the 2nd time in just two years – Welcome to the new normal.

But of course until the rains come, I will not feel comfortable in my own home. In fact, I don’t think I’ll ever feel safe in my home again. We’ve been looking to move for the better part of the last year and have made multiple trips up north. It’s not easy to find a place to land, knowing it’ll probably be the last place I live. And of course, Melissa has to be happy as well; so much has to be considered. The bay area affords a vast variety of diverse cultural experiences, not to mention the beauty of the coastline. That’s the ”problem” with where we live: We are 30 minutes from the ocean, 45 minutes from the mountains, and about an hour from San Francisco: It’s hard to beat. San Francisco remains a vital cultural arts center on the west coast, especially for the kind of music I enjoy. We have the amazing SF Jazz Center, the one of a kind Chapel, West Sonoma County’s own formidable Healdsburg Jazz Festival and a number of smaller venues that support the sort of eclectic, esoteric music I love. I’m fully aware that cities like Eugene, Portland or even Seattle don’t have this kind of programming and if they do, it tends to be a rarified event. Of course one can travel to the Bay Area or anywhere else for that matter for a healthy dose of culture. I just have mixed feelings about cutting the cord here, because I know once I do, I’m never coming back, and after 45 years in my beloved Sonoma County, that’s a sobering thought. That being said, the prospect of not moving is even more sobering.

This entry was posted on Dienstag, 5. November 2019 and is filed under "Blog". You can follow any responses to this entry with RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.


  1. Jan Reetze:

    Good luck — and may the rain begin to fall …

  2. Brian Whistler:

    Yes please.

  3. Lajla:

    Brian, sorry to hear about your probs. I have family in Mont Claire / Oakland. People could stay there in their houses. Nice area, not far away from the bay.

  4. Brian Whistler:

    Yeah, we can’t really afford to live in most of the bay area. Forestville is sorta relatively affordable in comparison to just about anywhere in Sonoma County- the rest of the Bay Area is thru the roof.

    We live in a wooded canyon full of oaks, bays, firs and other trees. It’s beautiful, but not a good place to be in a fire. There are only two narrow windy roads out of here. I don’t like to think about how full they would be in a catastrophe. And then there’s only one main road at the bottom which would be completely packed with cars. If we could get to the bottom, would they let us merge? Everyone in a panic, I don’t want to think about this scenario.

  5. Martina Weber:

    I read about it in the news and watched it on TV. But to read your post, it feels most tangible. I wish you all the best to find a new place to live.

  6. Rosato:

    I can’t find any better words than Martina. What she says meets exactly what I feel and think

    I wish you all the best

  7. Michael Engelbrecht:

    I was and am always curious to read your stories from the Californian hinterland – and the cultural power spots. Dreaming of a place to live, well, your area was ranking high (in my mind). Some British coastline could come close, and would now take the pole, cause, with that danger to live by, realism comes in. Your „West Coast“ is a living presence, no matter, if one has been there or not … the music we love is the common, can one say, archetypal ground.

    So that‘s my picture: it is 2020, and after some days and days on Highway One, I will arrive at your place, without warning, so to speak, and have an old vinyl with me. And if there‘s no record player, never mind, I will tell you about the weathered album, everything I remember. I couldn‘t play it on air, too damaged. Probably this is just illusionary, but to make it more real, Brian, you won‘t check the music. It may rest in the dreamosphere for a while. It‘s an album from the Human Arts Ensemble, and it‘s called Under The Sun. Now, the question is, can you wait?

  8. Jochen:

    To deepen your impressive writing, Brian, I watched an episode of Fire Chasers:

    That’s why the footage in the latest Netflix docuseries “Fire Chasers” doesn’t exist merely as entertainment. These aren’t harrowing images of fire purely delivered to shock and awe. By going multiple steps beyond the usual, familiar news footage of flames overtaking a hillside, this series (executive produced by Leonardo DiCaprio) embeds within the fire crews themselves, using on-helmet cameras and dangerously intimate firefighting footage to drive home the danger that these men and women face when the flame path is uncertain. (indieWire)

    The whole dry area seems to be highly and permanently explosive („like fuel“).

  9. Brian Whistler:

    Well the Human Arts Ensemble certainly passed me by, but I did look them up and they sound interesting, (a young John Zorn played with them,) while there are two of there albums I can listen to on a Tidal, the one you mention isn’t there- so I would have to wait. And I would certainly welcome you Michael anytime, surprise or no surprise. I do have a turntable, so your vinyl would be playable here.

    Driving on Highway One ( check out the tune by Alan Pasqua,) is a romantic thing for me, even though it’s a mere 30 minutes from my home. I still get excited every time I have the opportunity to head north to Point arena, Gualala, Fort Bragg and the town of Mendocino. Those craggy cliffs still take my breath away.

    And I will definitely check out Fire Chasers, perhaps after I recover from my latest bout of PTSD.

    Yeah it’s sad that the place that has so captured my heart, a place where I have lived 2/3 of my life, has now become such a dangerous place. If you saw the canyon I live in, you would really understand why I feel so uneasy here.

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