HOW WE BRUSHED OFF THE ASHES – PART 2
By Mark Blanchard / January 28, 2020
This is a story that I wish I wasn’t writing about. It’s a story that I feel like I’ve already shared, but unfortunately, it’s a story that I had to live through a second time. In 2017 Sonoma County was devastated by fires that burned countless homes and businesses and ended with the heartbreaking loss of many lives. My wife and I, my local friends, and my entire community went through a collective tragedy that shook our entire culture to its core and in ways brought us together like never before. When I wrote about what I went through that week, over two years ago, I thought that is was important to recount the tale and publish the story. I thought it was important to remember what had happened and never forget all that we went through. But I never thought I would be telling such a similar story again so soon.
Last October, Sonoma County once again found itself fighting a raging fire that was heading right for our community, right for my town of Healdsburg. We were warned ahead of time that potential fire conditions were eminent and that power outages were expected. But we optimistically believed that there was no way that we would find ourselves in the same frightening position of 2017.
This time around, my life and my world perspective had changed drastically though. In February of 2019 my wife Kalle and I welcomed our first child, Marcel Blue, into our lives. It was on a calm Wednesday night that I put my infant child to sleep and kissed my wife goodnight as she retired to bed. It was like any other night until the moment that the house went dark. The power outage wasn’t a surprise, as we knew that such precautions were happening in the area. But it just didn’t feel right. I walked outside to find a few other neighbors mingling around. And that’s when I saw the orange glow off in the distance. It was a sight that I knew all too well, and an image stained in my memory from two years prior. It was a fire and it was close.
I calmly went back inside and started packing evacuation bags, making sure batteries were in flashlights, quietly getting diapers and formula together while trying not to wake up my new family. I was shaking with anxiety. Two years prior I lived through a week of fear, wondering about the safety of my wife and myself. This time all I could think about was my little boy, my perfect child sleeping in his crib, and how there was no chance I would let anything happen to him. As stealthy as I tried to be, Kalle was of course awaken by my packing of supplies. I tried to keep calm, but she could see the worry in my eyes, hear the hesitancy in my voice. We woke Marcel from his slumber, and we once again fled our house for safety.
We evacuated to a friend’s house that first night but returned home the next day. We wanted to believe that it was an overreaction. We wanted to have faith that this was not going to be a repeat of 2017. But as the fires grew, we were not going to take any chances, not with our precious baby at risk. So, I took the initiative and booked a hotel room for us on the coast near the ocean, with the plan on riding out the scare with a pleasant getaway with my family. I figured, no matter what happened the fire would never make it as far as the coast, and nothing could possibly go wrong. That Saturday morning mandatory evacuations were announced for the entire town of Healdsburg and much of the surrounding area. Tens of thousands of residents were expected to lose power, lose gas, and were forced to flee their neighborhoods.
We arrived in the town of Bodega Bay and prepared ourselves for a safe weekend away from fear. Reports on the news kept flooding in that the fires were growing, and that smoke and ash were spreading across the county. We assumed we were safe that close to the ocean. But we were wrong. At 4:00 in the morning we were awoken by banging on our hotel door and I could hear a man screaming, “It’s time to leave!” The powerful winds had blown smoke and ash roughly fifty miles across the county and dumped it all right on top of Bodega Bay. As we ran to our car, infant child wrapped in a blanket crying on the top of his lungs, the ash rained down on us like a snowstorm. The power was out everywhere in the area as we fled in the darkness down the only road out of town, a caravan of headlights all desperately searching for safety.
We proceeded to spend the next four days in a friend’s house in Petaluma, with no power, but at least far enough away from danger. We heard rumors of how close the fires were creeping towards our town of Healdsburg and spent every minute wondering if we would even have a house to return to. But just like in 2017, we were once again battling through tragedy in the middle of the grape harvest season. Of course, this story is more than a tale of a horrible fire. It is the story of my family, the story of my community and a story about winemaking. After all, this is another story about Blanchard Family Wines.
Hundreds of wineries in Sonoma County were in the middle of crush time, with grapes still hanging on the vines and millions of gallons of wine still fermenting at abandoned wineries. The National Guard was literally holding Healdsburg on lockdown and blocking all roads in and out of town. Multiple winemaker friends and I were in contact with one another desperately trying to figure out a way into town to save our wine, to save our businesses. When wine is in fermentation, a day or two of neglect can ruin the wine completely. Our livelihoods stood in the balance.
So one afternoon I found myself alone in my friend’s house, their family had left for the day and my wife was working her job as a nurse in the hospital. I had a confused dog at my feet, a needy baby in one hand and a cell phone with half a charge in the other. I knew I had to find a way to get not only my winemaker into Healdsburg, but as many other winemaker friends in as well. I called the most influential friend that I have, the mayor of Windsor, the town next to Healdsburg. I pleaded my case to him and was met with complete understanding and sympathy. And even though he was in the middle of the most stressful week of his life, he did what any member of the Wine Country community would do. He helped me.
That phone call led me to a call with the Mayor of Healdsburg that then led me to a call with the Chief of Police. Keep in mind that I had never met either of these individuals in person before. But they understood my plight. They understood that saving their town was more than just preventing it from burning down, it meant saving its community, saving its businesses, and saving the wine that supports our entire lifestyle and economy. Miraculously I was able to arrange personal escorts from the Chief of Police himself for my winemaker and two winemaker friends, into the town of Healdsburg. Here was a man that probably hadn’t slept in days, in and out of Cal Fire meetings, National Guard meetings, patrolling our town day and night, and he was personally driving winemakers to their wineries to save wine. Not only that, but he physically helped with winemaking tasks in my winery to ensure that work could get done fast enough.
For two days, the Mayors and the Chief of Police met with multiple winemakers to bring them into our empty streets of Healdsburg and helped save millions of dollars of wine. They truly went above and beyond what could have ever been expected and saved countless businesses and families. One of the winemaker friends involved with this ordeal operates what they call a “custom crush” facility, meaning many different small wine companies make wine in one large place. So when I talked to the Chief in person when I finally returned to town days later, I explained to him the impact he had just made. I said to him, “You may have escorted a few people into town, but you actually help save over 20 small businesses in your community.” With emotion cracking in his voice, he replied, “Mark, I’m proud of a lot of things that I have done this week, but I might be most proud of that.”
This is why I love the community that I live in. This is why Wine Country is so special beyond just our scenery and good weather. We are a culture of people that truly care about one another. We are families, we are friends, we are businesses that rely on one another through good times and bad. Our Mayor and our Chief of Police were trying to save an entire town, but they also realized that helping one individual at a time still mattered and still counted.
As the evacuations lifted and people started to return to their homes, we were greeted by large flashing construction signs at every highway exit saying, “Welcome Back!” as fire fighters and police officers waved at our return. The days that followed reality sunk in as we learned just how close the fires came to destroying multiple towns in the area. Both Healdsburg and Windsor were less than mile away from fires raging right through neighborhoods. It is a fact that the media unfortunately did not express in the news. But the truth is, if not for the collective efforts of roughly 5000 firefighters, many of which came from other states to help, and the selfless work of countless National Guardsmen, police officers and other first responders, the towns of both Healdsburg and Windsor would have surely completely burned to the ground.
So many stories swirled around our community during and after the fires about the heroic efforts of brave men and women. Stories about battalions of fire trucks forming lines around our towns pushing the fires back against surging 90 mile per hour winds. Stories about planes dropping retardants over burning land to save neighborhoods minutes before flames engulfed them. But one story really stuck with me that was shared by the friend that owned the house we evacuated to. He is an ER doctor and spent the week volunteering at evacuation sites. He told me that there was a motto that was being repeated amongst the doctors, firefighters and other first responders. They kept saying one thing, “No one is going to die this time.” Realize that so many of these brave individuals went through the tragic fires of 2017 where about 40 people lost their lives. But this time, those same individuals, haunted by those memories, made a solemn vow to themselves. “No one is going to die this time.” And no one did. Not a single casualty.
Blanchard Family Wines was able to miraculously save our entire harvest in 2019 and we continue with our lives here in Wine Country. We recently released our 2017 Cash Allen Cabernet Sauvignon, a wine that was made during the fire week in 2017, a reminder of the first time we went through this tragedy. Over the next year or two we will release wines made during the 2019 harvest, wines that almost didn’t happen. And just like we did in 2017, we will brush off the ashes, we will overcome, we will pick up the pieces of our lives and we will rise back. But this time, I will hope, and I will pray that I will not ever write a third story like this. For now, we just send endless thanks to the men and women that saved our wines, saved our towns and saved our lives.