And The Sun Became Black As Sackcloth Of Hair & The Moon Became As Blood

by Rex Gressett, October 18, 2017

Like half of northern California, I woke up Monday morning to the subtle smell of smoke. Outside the early morning eastern sky was an unearthly frosty pink. I got a cup of coffee and went back outside to watch a blood red sunrise over the hill dull as the moon. Highway 1 was eerily abandoned.

In Fort Bragg the air hung heavy and acrid. There was Columbus Day lull but  our sleepy town saw a steady trickle of refugees from what they were calling the Redwood Complex Fire. There were lines at the gas stations and general uncertainty among the travelers about which highways were open south.

Over the course of the day the broad story unfolded and particulars trickled in. High winds had felled power lines across three counties and dropped them into the dry kindling of a long hot summer. In Mendocino, fire had sprouted in 30 or more locations from Potter Valley across Redwood Valley and past Willits into the big green of the Jackson Demonstration State Forest.

Along Highway 20 there were fires on the long Willits grade, feeding and blossoming and growing together. The guard rail posts were burning like long strings of birthday candles.

I holed up in Starbucks and watched, a little unbelieving, as the grim news dribbled in. By late afternoon we knew that there ten dead in the fires, and 1500 buildings destroyed in Santa Rosa alone. Two women had run from their burning house and were found laying on West Road in Sonoma County with third degree burns. Department stores, box stores, and the elegant houses of prosperous Santa Rosa were blasted away in an explosive racing flame driven by high gusts.

County by county, in Mendocino, in Yuba, Napa, Sonoma, Humbolt and Butte the roster of catastrophes spread like spilled red ink across the map of northern California.

As the strange day passed, Fort Bragg marinated in a gray acridity. Starbucks would be intermittently packed, and then would empty out.

Survivors wept quietly and told of lost houses. Tourists wondered and plotted courses south. Cell phone service was grievously uncertain.

Across the street in the Safeway parking lot in an entirely civilian pickup truck Olivia Hayward and Tyra Tompkins were doing a solid business taking donations. Early in the day they must have collected twenty bags of dog food. Across our little town there was a kind of abstracted waiting that was the exact opposite of anticipation. We knew it was bad, but on the smoke-enshrouded island of Fort Bragg we were holding off on gut reaction until we had a gauge of the magnitude of the thing. We knew it was big, but….

As the pictures started coming in from Santa Rosa on the incomparable MendocinoSportsPlus facebook pages it became clear that Santa Rosa was way ahead of our reaction. The before and after pictures showed sunny streets and schools and neighborhoods blasted into black twisted wreckage. It looked like a war zone. Or post-war Dresden.

The almost incalculable wealth and prosperity of bustling striving thriving Santa Rosa California had taken a massive hit. A municipal economy that had generated hundreds of thousands of fortunes and created vast wealth was felled like a giant by a storm of surging, raging fire.

Californians live on the fine edge of the continent. We know in our hearts that in the extremity of our non-negotiable commitment to being in the best place, we also live on the razor edge of potential cosmic disaster.

The rest of the country has been waiting for us to fall into the sea since I was a beardless youth. Californians live with our earthquakes like they were unruly in-laws. We build our houses on cliffs prone to mudslides for the fantastic views. We build them in or near dry forestland. We push and hustle and prosper and accommodate our psyches to the possibility — the inevitability — of the profoundly catastrophic. That’s just us. We are on the edge and we embrace the edge. We ain’t goin’ anywhere. We roll with it. It is the high price of living in paradise.

9 Responses to And The Sun Became Black As Sackcloth Of Hair & The Moon Became As Blood

  1. Alice Chouteau Reply

    October 18, 2017 at 3:36 pm

    The claim that high winds downed those power lines was made by PGE, and have been refuted by many, including the NWS, as gusting maximum 45mph, not 60-75. This company got in trouble before, after the Butte fires, and this latest disaster was much much worse in terms of lives lost, property etc…
    The lines need to be buried underground, for starters, or we can expect more conflagurations with global warming progressing.
    Thinking we are somehow safer, being coastal, is a big mistake. And the City of FB has yet to require sprinkler systems in the cbd! When you have time, check out the multitude of commercial real estate in town—ominous? Maybe all the mill site planning is to replace the dear old town when it’s destroyed by fire.

  2. Alice Chouteau Reply

    October 18, 2017 at 3:38 pm

    The claim that high winds downed those power lines was made by PGE, and have been refuted by many, including the NWS, as gusting maximum 45mph, not 60-75. This company got in trouble before, after the Butte fires, and this latest disaster was much much worse in terms of lives lost, property etc…
    The lines need to be buried underground, for starters, or we can expect more extreme conflagrations with global warming progressing.
    Thinking we are somehow safer, being coastal, is a big mistake. And the City of FB has yet to require sprinkler systems in the cbd! When you have time, check out the multitude of commercial real estate for sale now in town—ominous? Maybe all the mill site planning is to replace the dear old town when it’s destroyed by fire.

    • mr. wendal Reply

      October 18, 2017 at 11:23 pm

      There was a bit of discussion at different meetings about fire sprinklers in recent years. I think the most recent discussion was about a moratorium on the requirement during the August 23, 2016 Community Development meeting. Then, according to the September 8, 2016 City Manager’s City Notes, “This issue will be discussed further at the September 27th Community Development Committee meeting at 3:00 at Town Hall. It will also be live streamed on the City’s website.” But that meeting was canceled. The agenda for the following meeting consisted of only the mural competition – no fire sprinklers. The meeting after that had only appointing a bee city subcommittee on the agenda – again no fire sprinklers. More than a year has passed and still no further fire sprinkler discussion by the community development committee as promised.

      The city’s municipal code does require that commercial (and multifamily) remodel projects (pretty much any work except a new roof) valued at more than $75,000 must include fire sprinkler installation. Many of the downtown buildings are decrepit because major work necessitates installing the fire sprinklers and the building owners are either unwilling or can’t afford to install them. And no one is saying that they must install them and no one in charge is saying anything at all about Fort Bragg’s hazardous sprinkler-free downtown, even after the recent urban fire disasters. I hope someone on the city council will bring it up soon.

  3. Alice Chouteau Reply

    October 19, 2017 at 9:02 am

    City staff loves the feel-good stuff, like murals and being a Bee Friendly City, a label that implies the city cares about the environment. Hahahahaha…they will erect proud signage announcing this bee nonsense, with no method of preventing the use of Roundup etc, which are lethal to bees etc.
    A friend who was looking for commercial real estate in town was shocked by all the biz properties on the market now. We were wondering if it has some relationship with the fact that the city is at greak risk of burning down.
    Write the mayor and CC, and demand this public safety issue be addressed now.

  4. Eric Dwyer Reply

    October 21, 2017 at 5:33 pm

    So we get the question of water sprinklers again… It is done. Like above mentioned if any work 75K or more is done by permit it is added. The council did at one time attempt to pressure by force owners to install sprinklers. As I explained then I shall repeat, you can not as a council encumber the property rights and remove the grandfathered clause, noncompliance of new code. You can not legally force such a burden upon property owners even if it is a good thing.

    • mr. wendal Reply

      October 22, 2017 at 10:58 am

      You can legally force such a burden upon property owners by creating an ordinance, something several cities in California have done. They have updated their municipal codes in recent decades and mandated that existing commercial buildings, such as those in Fort Bragg’s downtown, retrofit fire sprinkler systems, period, without tying it to work done on the buildings. Most of them gave the owners a generous time frame for performing the work. Other municipalities have mandated retrofits by owners of existing buildings in certain districts, usually those whose loss that would cause a great economic hardship to the city if destroyed.

      “It is done” isn’t correct. As you said, Fort Bragg was going to mandate that all of the the core downtown buildings be retrofitted within four years of the adoption of the new fire ordinance. But that ordinance was eventually overturned. Then the dollar amount was raised from $50,000 to $75,000 and, in 2016, a moratorium on the idea of any sprinkler retrofit at all was proposed. The moratorium idea went to committee and died. Marie Jones was directed to investigate the possibility of obtaining funding or financial assistance for sprinkler system retrofit as an incentive for the property owners to do the work. At what city council or community development committee meeting were the funding options she researched shared with the public and discussed? That is an important component to an important issue.

      • Eric Dwyer Reply

        October 23, 2017 at 5:59 pm

        So I understand your point but do disagree with retroactive code enforcement. When this was debated the issue was explained how if this step was taken by council what about earthquake retrofit? It is a slippery slope so to speak. The nanny state of regulators forcing a building owner to upgrade to new code while no other permit is requested was and in Fort Bragg not the way forward. There are arguments on both sides. I feel the council got it correct due to much public interest. The finding of funding did die in the back rooms of committees as I understand it for it was not thought wise to attempt to find and spend public monies i.e grants funds for private property owners… Be well

  5. Alice Chouteau Reply

    October 22, 2017 at 10:33 am

    Eric
    Fort Bragg city gov has a pattern of failing to research how such problems are handled elsewhere. This is an example. How do other municipalities enact and enforce such measures as requiring fire sprnkler systems? Not just in California, in other western states too. They have a well paid staff to do the work, find info on how this has been done legally elsewhere. It’s called ‘research’, which you might try doing too. They could also focus on obtaining possible grants for helping property owners.

    • mr. wendal Reply

      October 22, 2017 at 11:01 am

      Staff was directed to research funding options in August 2016. That’s where it sits.

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