CALISTOGA, Calif. — There's a peach tree still heavy with fruit behind the boxwood hedge of Hideaway Cottages, which promise "a unique place for rest and relaxation." Nearby, in fluorescent police paint, the words "All Units" and a zero have been sprayed onto the hotel's driveway.
No one is here, not in the cottages nor in the surrounding neighborhood. Evacuation orders have left this high-valley village pristine and empty as fire burns on two sides.
The town stands at one end of a 10-mile stretch of road that runs southwest to Santa Rosa through some of California’s loveliest countryside, transformed now into stands of torched pines and oaks, abandoned vineyards and the unrecognizable remains of a lifetime’s possessions, piled in ashes atop cement foundation after foundation.
A dawn drive along the route, winding alongside the petrified forest, an exotic wildlife attraction and horse ranches, reveals a certain California truth that some enduring the wildfires north of San Francisco hoped did not hold here. Living in this state's most beautiful spots has always required a sacrifice in safety, even in the unique places for rest and relaxation.
“Life is a trade-off,” said David Frame, who has lived here for 30 years and patrols on his bike each morning to check his neighbors’ empty houses in defiance of the evacuation order. “We will all change; the character will change. But I think it will make us stronger.”
Californians have long accepted a measure of danger in exchange for the beauty of where they live — whether on the muddy cliffsides of Malibu and Topanga Canyon, in the dust-dry fire zones of Southern California or along the fault lines around San Francisco.
That devil's bargain did not appear to apply to a collection of counties north of the Bay Area, commonly known as California wine country, until a hot overnight wind whipped up a week ago. Since then, fires have killed 41 people, displaced nearly 100,000 more and destroyed thousands of homes, from multimillion-dollar to mobile.
Most of those killed have been elderly, evidence of the area’s attraction as a beautiful and safe place to retire. Among them were three couples, married for decades and unable to escape the windblown Tubbs fire as it crested the ridgelines on the eastern outskirts of Santa Rosa.
No one here was blind to the risk of living in near-constant drought conditions, and of the steady push of development from city centers into the eucalyptus and scrub brush in the dry hills outside. But some say it was easy to forget given the region’s history of being mostly fire-free, even as similar areas in the state’s south burn every year.
“It’s always been obvious to even the casual observer,” said Chip Sandborn, who was born and raised in the city of Sebastopol in neighboring Sonoma County.
Sandborn is a 66-year-old tree expert, who during a recent dawn parked along Mark West Springs Road to watch the valleys fill with purple smoke from a fire burning in the next canyon.
The last major fire in the area, he said, was in 1964, when the area was far more sparsely populated. But it was not nearly as damaging as this one, and so it was easily forgotten over the decades.
“People get complacent; they do a little clearing of their land, but the embers don’t care,” said Sandborn, who has been hired by the state to study the fire’s effects on the region’s diverse range of trees. “Perhaps for a moment after this, the complacency will end. But it will kick in again, it’s human nature, and we’ll have this conversation again in 50 years.”
This region is known for its picturesque places and sophisticated farm-to-table ethic by those who have made it one of the state’s prime tourist destinations. The wine industry will suffer, and so will the empty tasting rooms along Washington and Lincoln streets here.
But the damage is most acute in the beautifully ordinary places people lived — the charred houses with the hurriedly abandoned jogging stroller still out front, the driveways lined with melted recycling bins, the front yards prepped for Halloween with faux spider webs and plastic tombstones. The children are nowhere in sight.
The road rises and dips out through vineyards as it runs from Calistoga west toward Santa Rosa, the Sonoma County seat. After a few miles the valley narrows, creating what became a wind tunnel for the fire as it roared toward the city.
Wood utility poles, burned from the bottom, dangle precariously from power lines. Like mile markers, brick chimneys spike up from foundations, the only remains of expensive homes. Mustangs and pickup trucks sit on rims, their tires melted.
What were once sunken living rooms are filled now with charred hot water tanks, roof debris and smashed china services. Potted palms and abalone shells mark out what was once an entry walkway to a home with a valley view beyond.
The route goes from those custom-home addresses to tract housing as it hits the edge of Santa Rosa. The comfortably middle-class Mark West Estates is the gateway there.
Metal frames of what were once two-car garages stand like soccer goals across the broad, burned landscape. Singed palm trees — their fronds deformed by the flames — rise spiky and exotic like something from the imagination of Dr. Seuss.
There was no cruel whim of the wind in the estates, the odd fortune in fire where one home burns and its neighbor is saved by a shift. All is gone.
A few blocks from the estates, Peter Farber and Stevie Lazo, masked against the smoke, visited a friend’s home on a recent morning despite the evacuation orders in place.
The two were equipped with buckets — one filled with feed, the other a single egg. They were tending chickens, house by neighbor’s empty house.
Farber, a clinical engineer, said he has felt safe from fire since he moved into the area nine years ago.
“I was wrong; this was a whirlwind,” he said. “It will undoubtedly change here with all the personal loss, the shock. For us, it’s survivor’s guilt. How were we spared when so many others close by were not?”
Lazo said she has been engaged to Farber for 13 years and “will be perpetually.” She worked in the film industry in Los Angeles until retiring.
She lived through the fires and the earthquakes that struck often in and around that city, but never thought much about disaster in her adopted county.
“To me, this was heaven on Earth,” she said. “We love our neighbors; we still love this place.”
A few miles away, down Mendocino Avenue, is the Journey’s End Mobile Home Park where, a week ago, Linda Tunis was overwhelmed by the fast-moving fire. She was 69 years old.
The park is framed by a Kaiser Permanente hospital, evacuated and largely undamaged, and the stretch of Highway 101 that the flames jumped that night.
It is the urban end to the quaint Calistoga start of the route, a fenced-off corner lot of twisted mobile home frames and ruined cars.
No one has returned to sort through what is left, only the police in search of human remains.