A US couple who was forced to evacuate their home and winery share what it's really like to endure the wildfires engulfing the state
- On October 23, the Kincade Fire ignited in Sonoma County, California leading to the evacuation of 200,000 people - the largest in Sonoma County history - as strong winds have allowed the flames to spread quickly.
- The fire has destroyed over 120 structures and has burned through 75,000 acres - that's roughly five times the size of Manhattan.
- The Sonoma Wine Country is a hefty source of income for the state as thousands of wine lovers flock to its wineries every year.
- It's been two years to the month since the region's winery operators experienced a series of fires in 2017 that left 22 of 900 of its wineries destroyed in its parth.
- William Allen told Business Insider that his business, Two Shepherds Winery, survived the destructive wildfires in 2017 and said he's hoping and praying that his winery and his farm make it through this year's Kincade Fire.
- Allen evacuated his town of Fulton on Saturday. He said another wind event on Tuesday isn't expected to be as bad as the previous ones, but "fire is insanely unpredictable," Allen said. "The winery is still only a few gusts away from being demolished."
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Sonoma County, California, is no stranger to wildfires.
About 20 of the 900 wineries in the wine country region were destroyed by a series of destructive blazes in October 2017 that also left 200,000 acres scorched and 40 people dead in one of the state's deadliest wildfires.
William Allen of Two Shepherds Winery was one of the lucky ones in 2017. His winery in Windsor and his farm further south of it were left standing once the flames were snuffed.
But when we spoke with Allen Monday evening, he said that his winery was in the crosshairs of 2019's Kincade Fire, which broke out in Geyserville about 65 miles north of San Francisco on October 23.
The Kincade Fire has scorched 73,000 acres over the course of a week and has forced 200,000 people to evacuate from towns including Healdsburg, Windsor, and Santa Rosa, the latter of which was especially ravaged in the 2017 fires.
According to KGO, 123 structures have been destroyed so far by the Kincade Fire, including the Soda Rock Winery in Healdsburg that was a landmark of Sonoma's wine country and whose buildings date back 150 years.
Now, Allen said the fate of his winery, who he runs with his girlfriend and business partner Karen Daenen, now rests in the hands of the first responders as the fire rages on with only 15% of it contained currently.
"If they are successful, we'll be fine," Allen said. "If they're not, we'll lose our winery."
An 'unprecedented' evacuation
In the weeks before the fire broke out, Allen said they had just finished the harvest for their 10-year-old winery.
On the morning of Saturday, Oct. 26, three days after the Kincade Fire ignited, Allen said their situation in Windsor didn't seem as dire as other parts of the county. They put a game plan together anyways to prepare themselves and others in the area in case the fire started to draw near to them.
Allen was on his way back from New York, but Daenen was on the ground helping others gather supplies for their farm animals.
Allen said their plans were to open the tasting room and invite people in for some wine and to power their devices, since rolling power outages were making that difficult to do. The utility company Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) had shut off the power for almost one million customers as a precaution during the fire season.
But then it was them that were in danger just like much of the rest of the county.
"By 5 o'clock, we were in a dramatically different situation fleeing ourselves," Allen said.
Allen said that's when the announcements came for the evacuation of both Windsor and Healdsburg, which was "pretty unprecedented."
"We've never had that many people from large population centers evacuated," Allen said.
And that's true on a grander scale throughout Sonoma - the Kincade Fire has resulted in the largest evacuation in Sonoma County history.
"We left knowing that there was a possibility we had no place to go, no place to return to," Allen said.
Allen and Daenen live on a farm in a small rural community called Fulton between Santa Rosa and Windsor about 10 miles south of the Two Shepherds Winery. So getting their animals as far south away from the fires was one of the first steps they took when evacuating.
Other than that, Allen said they only packed the essentials, most of which were food, water, and pet crates for their two dogs and cat.
Allen said Daenen grabbed their home insurance papers and the blueprints for their home, which they renovated and rebuilt before the 2017 fire.
Allen grabbed two cases of wine.
"I don't think I'm regretting the fact that we had some wine with us, particularly last night," Allen said.
They also snagged some medicine and other little things, but they left everything else.
"What we can't replace is the five of us," Allen said, referring to Daenen and their three pets, which Allen described as being like their children.
They set off south toward San Francisco, along with thousands of other evacuees, rendering a hefty amount of clogged traffic.
"I think that's the longest drive I've ever experienced trying to get 45 miles," Allen said.
They searched for pet-friendly hotels and found one in San Francisco's Presidio district, where they rested and ate for the first time in a while.
Since the fire started, Allen said they've been monitoring weather reports and wind patterns to keep tabs on the fire's growth and path, though he said relying on cell phone use in the midst of a power blackout isn't very efficient.
"The fact that there is no power for a million locations in the Bay Area makes evacuating far more complicated," Allen said.
Strong winds, called "Diablo winds," have been cited as one of the contributing factors to the fire's fast pace, and another wind event was expected for Tuesday.
"We're well aware that we've got catastrophic winds coming in the early hours of the morning," Allen said on Monday evening.
The incoming gusts and the potential destruction they could cause is unnerving, and Allen said they've had trouble sleeping because of the anxiety.
"If we lose the winery, I don't know if we [can] even manage to survive," Allen said. "So that obviously stresses us to no end."
But what Allen said is even more concerning is the national publicity Sonoma is getting for the devastation it's experiencing at the hands of wildfires for the second time in two years.
"How many times can we have this in national news before people just say there are other places to vacate besides Sonoma County?" Allen said.
Allen said these are normally some of their busiest months of the year, with the harvest season being a big attraction for visitors.
"We are certainly beyond stressed about the health of our business," Allen said.
On Monday evening, Allen said he and Daenen were planning to go back to their farm in Fulton Tuesday morning since things seemed a little more under control.
Allen said they're going back to defend their home from spot fires, just like they did in 2017.
"We lived in the middle of this last time," Allen said. "We were literally sitting on our farm two years ago during 2017 fires and watching burning pieces of newspaper and embers float down and then running around and stomping them out."
He said his rural farm town of Fulton won't look like the other more populated neighbourhoods that are being threatened.
"We're not a dense, high-population area like Windsor, so there's not going to be a hundred fire trucks patrolling up and down all these rural roads," Allen said.
Allen told Business Insider on Tuesday afternoon that he and Daenen were back in Fulton and preparing for the strong winds that are expected to blow through later that night.
If the fire does close in on their property, Allen said they won't stay. They don't even plan to unpack their things from the car in case they end up having to make a run for it. But he said he feels like he needs to take action.
"I'm not prepared to just sit in a hotel room in San Francisco and do nothing," Allen said.
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