The following is the first in a series of stories by Rebecca Lawton about the experiences of people close to Pepperwood during the North Bay fires that began October 8, 2017.
Through the flames:
Michael Gillogly, Pepperwood’s Preserve Manager and longtime resident, shares his story about the Tubbs Fire
By Rebecca Lawton
When Michael Gillogly, Preserve Manager at Pepperwood, left the property on the night of October 8, there was no clear way out. The Tubbs Fire had converged on Pepperwood from the south and the east, and all routes to safety were burning.
“Our closest neighbor, a fellow Pepperwood employee, had called around 10:30 to say she smelled smoke,” Michael says. “I looked out to the east and saw a big orange glow in the sky.” He drove down Franz Valley Road, where he saw a wall of fire coming from the east. He and another driver proceeded back up the road, honking their horns and alerting the neighbors. “If we didn’t see lights turn on or anyone come out, we went up to the door.”
Back at the preserve, he and his wife Ginger and son Loren prepared to leave the home they’d lived in for seventeen years. “It was hard to focus on what to bring, because our minds were like butter as the flames were getting closer. We didn’t want to wait too long.”
Ginger and Loren drove the family cars out Pepperwood’s front entrance, but Michael stayed back to move a few preserve vehicles to safer locations. He phoned other people he knew who were in the path of the fire. And, as he fought spot fires around his home with a fire extinguisher, he watched Pepperwood burn.
“It was just fascinating. The flames didn’t all move at the same rate. They’d make quick runs down the ridgelines, then take a slower time to burn down the side of the ridge. It was a spectacle, just awesome,” he says with a tone that combines both wonder and dismay. “If it wasn’t for the fact that we were losing homes and lives that night, it would be easier to appreciate that the fire was pretty amazing.”
When the big hill near him went up in a roaring wall of flame that reached the treetops, Michael knew it was time to leave.
“I didn’t get far along Mark West Springs Road before I saw Cal Fire trucks parked on the road. None of the firefighters were outside, because the conditions were so bad. I started to pull past them, until a voice over a loudspeaker told me to stop. ‘You in the white truck, you cannot go forward, you will not survive if you go forward.’”
That’s when things got trickiest. Michael turned around to drive the other way, although he knew that the fire was burning in that direction, too. At Mark West Lodge, he asked another Cal Fire employee what to do. The Cal Fire employee said that he didn’t know; there were no good options at that point. Michael could stay in a wide part of the road and let the fire burn past him and hopefully around him, or he could try to drive out to Calistoga Road.
Michael, along with two other drivers who were also stuck in the area, decided to make a run for it. “For the entire three miles to Calistoga Road, everything was on fire on both sides of us. All the houses, everything we passed, it was all burning. I could feel the heat inside my cab from the fire. Trees had fallen on the road and, in one stretch, rocks dislodged by the fire had rolled down a steep bank and were in the way. Luckily we were able to get around all of those. My adrenaline was pumping as I dodged everything, and I had to keep my eyes on the road and go fast, but not so fast that I crashed and lost the opportunity to get out. Pretty soon we were through it.”
He rejoined his family in Santa Rosa and fled south on Highway 101, another harrowing experience. “The fire was already on the freeway and jumping over it. People had to get off by going down the onramp the wrong way, it was the only way you could get out of there. The wind was blowing hard, burning embers were flying across the freeway, and the grass alongside the road was bursting into flames. It was just insane. Then it was over, we were out of the fire zone.”
Two days later, he returned to Pepperwood. “We came with a sheriff escort when it was still an active fire area. The drive in was overwhelming. Through the Larkfield area and up Mark West Road, there was hardly a house standing. As far as you could see, the neighborhoods were leveled.”
But getting to the preserve and seeing the wildlands lifted his heart.
“The firestorm burned mostly at the southern end of the preserve. After the initial windstorm, there was a much less intense fire, a ground fire that burned through and cleaned up the understory. Seeing that, I realized that things were going to be okay. Lots of trees survived. It’s not just this burned-over black place, there’s still a lot of life.” A doe and two fawns who frequented the grasslands near Michael’s house are still there. In the weeks since the fire, he’s seen snakes, quail, more deer, a coyote, and other wildlife.
Pepperwood will be healthier for the burn. “Mediterranean ecosystems have evolved with fire, so there are plants that depend on fire to reproduce. The plants on the preserve are going to resprout or reseed, and it’s going to look a lot better in the spring and in five years from now.”
Michael points out the wreckage of Pepperwood’s Hume Observatory to a reporter from the Press Democrat
“We can’t stop fire. It’s going to keep coming. We have to manage the vegetation with prescribed burning and thinning to reduce fuels so wildfires aren’t as catastrophic as this one was.”
Pepperwood had just begun doing prescribed burns in recent years, developing a Vegetation Management Plan in partnership with Cal Fire and tapping the agency’s expertise. “We also consulted with Native American advisors and fire ecologists. We’d done two burns, one as recently as last June that was twenty-two acres. Before that we’d done a small, seven-acre burn. And we had our first forest burn scheduled for fall. We did a lot of thinning and vegetation removal to prepare for that burn. It will be interesting to see how the fire went through that area and if our preparations were beneficial to the landscape.”
Michael and his family did lose their home in the fire. He says that he’d always considered the possibility of fire at the house. Every summer he and his family would think about it. “But we thought we’d be okay,” he says, “even if we lost our home. We thought that material things are not that important. Now I see what it means to really lose everything.”
“It’s been an emotional roller coaster to go through all this. Some people I know perished in the fire. Fortunately my family and friends and other people I know are safe. And we’ll come back from it.”
Rebecca Lawton is a Sonoma-based author, fluvial geologist, and former Colorado River guide who writes about water, rivers, and climate. She blogs occasionally at www.beccalawton.com.