THURSDAY EVENING – 10.24.19
It’s getting dark outside, and inside the Rosenthals’ tasting room, it’s even darker. The power’s already off in Middletown, and battery-powered lanterns, LED candles and glasses of wine sit on the tables, around which sit groups of women committed to our county and part of the local Soroptimist group.
Monica Rosenthal stands behind the bar, pouring bottles of Rosenthal Vineyard’s wine.
“I’ve got something special,” she says. “This is our last bottle of Viognier from the Valley Fire. I’ve saved it, and thought it would be a good time to bring it out.” She pauses, remembering how the fire four years ago pushed its way to the very edge of their property while her husband Dave defended their home. “Don’t expect it to taste good. It’s going to be really smokey.”
She pours a small plastic cup with a taste of the wine. It’s still got their classic Viognier flavor, but an ashy residue lingers on the palate.
Just behind the mountain, the Kincade Fire grows.
“It’s a small turnout,” Olga Martin-Steele says, a small cup in her hand. “Some people didn’t come because of the Kincade Fire, and some didn’t come because of the Power Outage.”
Jessica Pyska stands nearby. “Our house is two miles from the fire,” she adds. “About nine last night, the kids say they saw a flash. We’ve got front row seats, and watched it all night.”
FRIDAY AFTERNOON – 10.25.19
Standing on the edge of 175 at Hoberg’s, it’s easy to see the fire. Flames spurt above the ridgelines, billowing greyblack smoke upwards. Behind Cobb Mountain, a huge pillar of darkness rises from the ground like a thunderhead.
“These fires get me worried,” Paul, a neighbor, says. “Before the Valley Fire, it wasn’t like this. Now it’s every year.” He scans the ridge with his binoculars.
“See that, over there?” He points to a patch where the fire has pushed further northward. “That’s looking better. A few minutes ago, there were flames.”
Just as he finishes his sentence, we hear a hum to our left. Two planes swing around Harbin Mountain and fly up the valley. In front, a spotter starts a slow dive on its approach to the fire.
A small cloud pops out of spotter, marking the spot for the larger tanker following behind.
“Here it comes,” Paul says.
The huge tanker begins its steep dive, leveling out to dump thousands of gallons of red retardant on the ridgeline just north of Cobb. As soon as its empty, the engines whine as the plane pulls into a climb, circles again, and heads off to refuel.
“God, I hope the wind changes,” Paul worries.
FRIDAY NIGHT – 10.25.19
The party’s in full swing in Loch Lomond. Fifteen bottles of opened wine, some full, some empty, sit on one counter. On the other counter, platters of potluck food rest – meatballs, pierogies, salad, cookies. Mike’s standing in front of his wood-fired oven, pulling the dough out and flattening it to make another pizza.
The lights are covered in ghost-like cloth. In the corner, a skeleton tends a smoking cauldron. It’s loud and crowded. People laugh and talk, enjoying the cool night air. In the back, kids play a game of bocce.
Ring. Ring. Ring.
Everyone’s phone starts to make noise. Someone’s voice rises above the crowd.
“Everyone, listen up! Hey! Everyone!” He half-yells. “There’s been an evacuation warning for the residents of Cobb. So you might want to make sure you’re ready.”
Half the crowd immediately disappears as the laughter quiets down. Then, from the wine table comes the crick, crick, crick sound of a corkscrew twisting into a bottle of wine.
“Well, what else are we going to do?” she says. “We might as well drink.”
SATURDAY EVENING – 10.26.19
At The Roadhouse in Loch Lomond, outlaw country musician Dallas Moore strums on his guitar. The power’s out, but people still showed up to party in the dark. Outside, a generator vibrates the building, providing just enough electricity to power a few lights and his sound equipment. Anna, the bartender, and Jenny, co-owner and manager of the Roadhouse, run around with headlamps around their necks, giving them just enough light to mix drinks.
A few miles away, the Kincade Fire continues to grow.
People laugh and smile, listening to the music. It’s been a good evening. A fifth of Jim Beam sits half-empty next to a couple of beers on the stage. Dallas pours himself another shot, takes a sip, then pulls a long swig from his beer.
“You know, I’m just high and drunk enough to play this song,” he says, as he picks a few notes out, then launches into a version of Mozart’s “Fur Elise.” His fingers slide up and down the fretboard. The piece increases in speed, then shifts.
“Some men call me Abel,” he sings, “Some may call me Cain.”
The guitar picks up in intensity. “Some may call me sinner, and some may call me saint.”
The crowd around the bar begins to cheer.
When you’ve got nothing to lose, you’ve got nothing to gain,” he sings.
The piece slows down, then picks again. Soon his fingers move took quickly to see, and as he moves ups the scale, his hands become a blur.
“I’m an outlaw man, yeah,” he sings his heart out. “Outlaw man.”
Then, just as quickly, “Fur Elise” starts up again. He picks the song to a crescendo then strums his way to a finish.
“Thank you, Loch Lomond,” he says. “Have y’all a good evening.”
People laugh, say their goodnights, and wander off into the darkness.
MONDAY AFTERNOON – 10.28.19
The power’s still out. Wind whips oak leaves and pine needles across the road.
The Kincade Fire has shifted away from Cobb, but now the smoke pushes into Middletown, where things aren’t so certain. The evacuation warning is still in place.
“People are getting stirry,” Jenny Dabney says outside the Roadhouse.
“Stirry?” What’s that mean?”
“You know,” she says, puffing on her cigarette. “People have already left the mountain. They can’t handle the fire nearby. It’s too much for them.”
Outside the gas station in Cobb, a line of forty cars stretches down the highway. Stories start to come of people stealing generators, stealing food. It’s been too long without power, and people are beginning to break from the strain.
“I might shut The Roadhouse down tomorrow,” Jenny continues, “but the people who come here have nowhere else to go. I mean, there’s four people up there right now, and they’ve got no one and nothing but here.”
She flicks her cigarette. “Yup, people are stirry. But we’re dealing with facts. I tell my kids, Facts Only.”
WEDNESDAY NIGHT – 10.30.19
It’s still dark.
Our cars have been packed for days now, ready to evacuate at a moment’s notice. But now we’re running out of clean clothes.
The persistent puttering of generators echoes through the night. The only heat comes from the woodstove, where pans full of water sit, warming for a bath. Candles sit on the tables, providing dim light, just enough to not read by.
Suddenly, the house fills with light. Then the refrigerator kicks on. The microwave beeps.
It’s been four and a half days, and finally, the power is back.
THURSDAY AFTERNOON – 10.31.19
A text message shows up on the phone: “Effective immediately, all evacuation warnings in Lake County related to the Kincade Fire are lifted.”
The county breathes a sigh of relief. No more power shutoffs for at least a week. No more smoke and ash in the air. No more evacuation warnings.
Until next time.