Walt Flom: It started in Calistoga at 8:45 pm and it took about four hours to get to the top of that ridge up there. At some point people start realizing, “This is way too smoky and there are too many embers to be from a long ways away.” And then we heard that there was fire over in Riebli and Mark West, and that’s when people started getting serious, like, “Oh! It is really close!”
We just got in the car and headed west, towards the ocean and we were trying to figure out where to go. We couldn’t really find a place to stop, but there was a little enclave. So we just drove in and we parked our cars; [my wife] Gail was in the truck, I was in the Subaru. We had the dogs. And we were just going to go to sleep. Then we saw this lady from the house come walking down with a flashlight. And I thought, “Oh no, she’s going to be mad at us for being here.” We told her we were evacuating and she said, “I’ve been up all night hearing about the fire! Do I need to evacuate?” It was so ironic because, I mean, it’s at least six or seven miles away. I kind of laughed because there was no smoke in the air, nothing. It was beautiful. I said, “No, I don’t think so. Do you mind if we sleep here?” She said, “No problem.” Then she talked to her landlord and the landlord offered to let us sleep in his mobile home. I mean people were just so nice!
The night of the fire, I went through an intersection where I saw a truck on fire but all the houses were there. Well, the next morning, we drove back to our in-laws’ house at about 8:00 am and we drove through that intersection and all the houses were gone. That’s when it really hit us! Like, ‘Oh my God!’ When we were told to evacuate, we thought “What’s the big deal?” We had no idea that those entire neighborhoods, just a half a mile south of us, were on fire.
I was out riding [my bike] and all of a sudden I thought, “Oh my gosh, I forgot to grab all the videotapes!” My kids are 24 and 28 now and we videotaped their entire lives...all the games and holidays. All of a sudden I thought, “I didn’t grab the tapes,” and I was crushed. I called Gail, “I think I forgot all the tapes!” Two hours later she called me back and said, “There’s a big box of tapes here.” I had grabbed that box but I didn’t remember it.
Steve Backman: So the local radio station, KSRO—it was really good; totally focused on the fire. And they told you where the evacuation centers were, what [neighborhoods needed] evacuating, what was going on. The community really came together. It was pretty amazing.
WF: Once we got back to the in-laws’ house on Monday we had the radio on non-stop. That’s all they talked about—the fire, 24 hours a day.
SB: It was local. They would repeat the same info on TV, showing you the same thing over and over. The radio was up to date.
WF: They did an amazing job! You have this naive idea that when there’s a fire, someone’s gonna let you know. Right? I think that was the biggest shock. Everyone’s going, “I had no idea! A neighbor woke me up and the flames were 100-feet from my house.” So many people had less than five minutes. The whole notification system just totally broke down. I also had this crazy idea that there would be all these helicopters and planes fighting the fire. Ha, no! It was too windy. It was too dangerous. There was no air support. As far as we know, the fire trucks never even came above Riebli because there was no hope to fight it.