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As flames approach, family stays put to save their horses — and their history

Firefighter Chris Corder watches a helicopter drop water on a wildfire Wednesday as it approaches homes in the Vineyard Development outside of Geyserville, Calif. (AP)

GEYSERVILLE, Calif. — Gretchen Crebs spent the night on the porch with her shoes on, watching fires consume the trees and brush on a ridge above the town that six generations of her family have called home.

“I kept watching the hill,” Crebs said Thursday. She had stayed awake so her 79-year old father, who had been up for 36 hours, and the rest of the family could get some sleep.

The previous day had started before dawn. Her father, Harry Bosworth, had walked “one old mule and two old horses” down to this tiny Northern California town with the help of his son-in-law to protect them from the encroaching wildfire.

“We sold the horse trailer last year. Thought we’d never need it again,” said Crebs’s mother, Karen Bosworth, 77.

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Helicopters have been dipping into a small lake on Harry Bosworth’s 40-acre ranch to collect water to dump on a fire threatening the property. A 747 swooped by dropping fire red retardant on the flames.

By nightfall, much of the area surrounding the town of Geyserville was evacuated. But this family stayed put.

The Bosworth clan represents a rarity in this state of transplants, a sixth-generation family in the town where their ancestors arrived in the 1880s.

Their hardware store, Bosworth and Son General Mercantile, also carries cowboy hats and wine country souvenirs, as well as the town’s history — old school bells, handwritten bank ledgers and fine china teacups that Harry’s great-grandparents carried from Maine.

The two-block long downtown, with funky outdoor architecture and two much-loved Italian restaurants, has long drawn visitors from throughout Sonoma County. In recent years there has been an influx of wine tasting rooms as tourists — drawn by the celebrity of the nearby sprawling Francis Ford Coppola Winery, with its gift shop, Hollywood memorabilia and pool swimming cabanas — also have discovered the town of about 800.

After a fire in the late 1960s approached their spread, the Bosworths brought in sheep to graze on flammable brush and planted a vineyard whose green plants act as fire retardant. Other than this week, that had been the only time in their 50-year-marriage that fire has come close to their land here in Northern California wine country.

The mandatory evacuations near Geyserville never included the town itself, where only an advisory evacuation was in place. Still, the Crebs’s two teenage daughters had packed a change of clothes and a few other things, just in case.

“I think it made them feel better,” Gretchen Crebs said. Neither she nor her husband packed bags.

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At 11 p.m. Wednesday, with the fire still glowing above, Crebs walked a block to talk with firefighters, many of whom she knows by name. She felt reassured there would be a knock on the door and time to get to Highway 101 and head south to the safety of Healdsburg or Windsor, Calif., if needed. At 1 a.m., she could still see red above. On Thursday, the flames had died down, but helicopters were still scooping water from the lake.

The family stayed because of the horses, history and the reassuring presence of police from San Francisco, 70 miles south, who had been driving by with spotlights, stopping to chat with residents.

“They were asking how wide the river was,” Crebs said, referring to the nearby Russian River, which has dried to essentially a gravel pit. Still, it was a possible fire break protecting her parents’ ranch and her grandmother’s house, where Crebs, her husband and daughters live.

Now, near the end of the fall harvest came the sad news that a longtime neighbor’s vineyard and winery had burned.

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But Karen Bosworth believes there are signs that wine country life will continue.  From her chair in her mother’s — and now daughter’s — home on the town’s still passable main road, she could see “the grape trucks are still going back and forth.”

The scene as wildfires devastate Northern California’s wine region

Flames overtake a structure as nearby homes burn in theNapa wine region in California on October 9, 2017, as multiple wind-driven fires continue to whip through the region. / AFP PHOTO / JOSH EDELSONJOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images (Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)