In California wine country, wildfire-fatigued residents weigh the unthinkable: Moving out

SANTA ROSA, California – Robert Hayden and his wife, Alla, have lived in the Spring Lake Village retirement community of Santa Rosa for 10 years and love its beautiful grounds almost as much as the plethora of interesting people they’ve met there – retired doctors, musicians, pilots, writers and executives.

On Sunday, the Haydens were among the approximately 450 Village residents forced to leave their homes as the fast-moving Glass Fire approached. It was the second time in recent years they’d gone through that drill, after fleeing the October 2017 wine country fires that killed 22 people and destroyed 5,600 structures. Though Hayden said the residents were better-prepared this time, the evacuation was still stressful.

“We went outside, the sky was all orange and the air was filled with ash,’’ Hayden said as he sat in his motorized scooter outside the Petaluma Community Center, about 20 miles south of his cottage. “It accumulated on my jacket. I think I still have remnants.’’

At 98, the longtime San Francisco Bay Area resident has no plans to relocate, but he senses a growing frustration among fellow members of the community who are fed up with living under the constant threat of wildfires this time of year.

Last month, some of the same 70,000 people under evacuation orders Tuesday in Napa and Sonoma counties were displaced by a lightning-sparked blaze that became the fourth-largest fire in state history.

The thought of leaving the picturesque wine country, with its abundant top-notch restaurants and pleasant weather, is not typically tempting for those who can afford to live in the area. But the notion may become inevitable for many if the quick-striking wildfires continue to ignite regularly in a region that has grown increasingly dry with climate change.

“I see it in Spring Lakers. They’re beginning to move out,’’ Hayden said. “I think there’s going to be an increased trend of Northern Californians moving to less fire-prone areas.’’

‘Like God has no sympathy’: Crews struggle with deadly wildfires racing through Northern California, wine country

It would be hard to blame them after watching the region bear the brunt of the more than 8,100 wildfires in the state this year, which have charred a record 3.8 million acres. Two years ago, the Butte County town of Paradise farther northeast was virtually wiped out by the Camp Fire, which killed 85 people.

Deputy state fire marshal Cliff DuGranrut examines the debris left from the Glass Fire in Santa Rosa, Calif., on Sept. 29, 2020.

Even infernos with considerably less tragic consequences, like the so-far nonlethal Glass Fire, bring on enormous disruption. Cal Fire said the blaze had destroyed 97 homes and businesses and incinerated 46,600 acres, and it was only 2% contained as of Wednesday morning.

The Glass Fire was one of two blazes racing through California since Sunday. The other, the Zogg Fire, has burned through 50,102 acres near Redding and left three people dead.

Luis Garcia Ochoa and his sister Margarita Garcia live three blocks from each other in Calistoga, a Napa County town that was evacuated Monday night. They received cellphone alerts at 5 a.m. and said this was a closer call than the 2017 fires, which did more damage in Santa Rosa.

“It was frightening,’’ said Margarita, a winery worker who along with four other family members is sheltering at her daughter’s one-bedroom apartment. “Plus, my mother’s 89 and we had to pack up her oxygen and her medications. We couldn’t stay any longer because of the smoke and the flames, which were already close.’’

Heartbreaking images: Photos show Glass Fire’s devastating impact on Chateau Boswell winery in California’s Napa Valley

Martha McAllister, also a resident of Spring Lake Village, got an alert late at night Sunday and had just a few minutes to get ready to leave. McAllister, 90, was eventually bused to the shelter in Petaluma.

“Normally she’s the epitome of someone who’s put together, and she came out here in her bathrobe covered with ash,’’ said her daughter Stephanie McAllister, who had run out to buy her mother some clothes. “She’d been up all night.’’

Like the Haydens, Martha McAllister said she knew of Village residents planning to move away, but she had invested too much money on her entry fee into the community to pull up stakes. Plus, her daughter and granddaughter live nearby.

James Weathers, sheltering at the Finley Community Center in Santa Rosa with his wife, Linda, and 3-year-old boxer, Cocoa, said he refuses to believe this is the new normal. As with other locals, this is their second evacuation since 2017, although last time it was only for one day and their house was not damaged.

This time they had to rush out more quickly and forgot their computer – with family photos, insurance information and financial records.

“We don’t know at this point whether our house is still there. I don’t know if we would rebuild here. Probably not,’’ said Weathers, 79, who has managed to keep his sense of humor intact.

“People, myself included, keep joking: ‘Where are the locusts? They’re coming.’’’

Shortly after checking in with his wife at the well-regarded Finley facility, Luis Villanueva recalled the 2017 fires as a “punch in the face’’ to residents who felt relatively safe from the flames. This year’s blaze has hit closer to home: A friend from work had his house burn down.

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An electrical engineer by profession, Villanueva takes an analytical approach to the threat of fires, keeping track of them and realizing the encroachment of developments into wildlands is part of the reason they have proliferated in populated areas.

But his wife, Ana Maria, who uses a walker, is not thinking in those terms, and he acknowledges “she’s scared to death’’ after they had to leave their Santa Rosa house of 18 years under evacuation orders. She knows of plenty others who feel the same way.

“All of my wife’s friends are talking about how this is it, they’re going to move out, but most of them don’t,’’ Villanueva said. “It’s human nature. A week after, two weeks after, I think you appreciate life better, and then they forget. Until the next warning.’’

Contributing: The Associated Press

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