FLAMES ON OUTSKIRTS OF SONOMA
Sonoma, where history and $100 bottles of wine come together on the colonial-era plaza in the middle of town, is hanging tough.
So far, the voracious flames that have ravished the Wine Country have spared the old mission and the Spanish barracks and the old hotel and the City Hall and all the other historic buildings that visitors call on when not shopping, dining or wine tasting.
On Thursday, residents spent the day nervously eyeing the flames that had paused on the north edge of town, two miles from the plaza. But when the winds kicked up at midday, fire officials extended the mandatory evacuation order to 4th Street — only three blocks east of the plaza.
Hours before, a crew of movers had finished hauling the historic relics from Mission San Francisco Solano, loading them into four trucks and whisking them to safety. The mission was closed to visitors and the windows taped, but it was possible to peek inside and view the emptied-out mission museum and the emptied display cases.
It was the most dramatic thing to happen in downtown Sonoma in 171 years, since a group of settlers who were ticked-off at Mexico declared California to be a republic and banged on the door of General Mariano Vallejo to tell him so. California as a separate country didn’t work out but Vallejo’s wooden Victorian house is still standing. Sonoma residents are hoping it stays that way.
But the crew of movers from the mission, just to be sure, stopped at Vallejo’s home and removed artifacts from there, too. Jorge Moreno, a spokesman for the state parks department, confirmed that items had been whisked from the mission and from Vallejo’s house, but said he couldn’t say exactly what they were or where they were being stored.
Most of the concerns were focused north of town. All day, firefighters were busy lighting backfires near the threatened homes in an effort to keep the flames at bay. They bulldozed firebreaks and crossed their fingers. In the afternoon, the winds picked up and firefighters intensified their efforts in the Gehricke Road area near the shut-down Ravenswood Winery.
Helicopters dropped water and bulldozers cut more containment lines. Roadblocks went up around the area.
Downtown Sonoma, usually a busy hub of visitors, diners and shoppers, was nearly deserted for much of the day. The few souls who braved the thick, choking clouds of smoke wore white face masks as if surgeons heading to the operating room. It was like walking through a heavy fog bank, with the sun little more that a faint orange orb fighting to be noticed among the walls of orange flame just outside town.
A Basque bakery was selling coffee and pastry on the east side of the square. That, and the sports bar nearby, were the only places open for business.
Sunny Bajwa, the owner of the Basque Boulangerie Café, said he had been sleeping inside the bakery to keep an eye on things. On Wednesday, he sent his bakers home to be with their families and lost about $10,000 worth of business.
“It’s very scary, like we’re living in a movie,” Bajwa said.
“It’s very scary, like we’re living in a movie.” Sunny Bajwa, owner of Sonoma’s Basque Boulangerie Café
But on Thursday morning, the bakery was full of customers, it being practically the only place to buy anything to eat. The aroma of croissants, muffins, cinnamon twists and coffee hung in the air, keeping the smoke company.
“We wanted to be here for people who have supported us through thick and thin,” Bajwa said.
Also jammed full of customers was the Town Square Sports Bar, where weary residents were drinking things that weren’t coffee. Jason Sinclair, a Sonoma resident, was finishing a Bloody Mary. He said he had spent the night at a cheap motel with thin walls in Vallejo and was feeling tired and figured he might as well come back.
Other folks were walking around town in their face masks, hoping that their beloved surroundings would survive.
“This is a very desirable place to live,” said Mark Todd, 61, who was taking a morning stroll around town. “It’s like being on vacation all the time. Until something like this happens.”
Todd said he and his friends have been looking at pictures of the devastation in Santa Rosa and hoping Sonoma would not suffer the same fate.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty and I’m a little worried,” he said. “We’re kind of all thinking it could happen here.”
Richard Quintana and other California Highway Patrol officers urge residents to leave Sonoma. Officials extended the mandatory evacuation order to 4th Street.
Workers move historic relics from the Sonoma Barracks. California State Parks decided to move the items from the Barracks and Mission San Francisco Solano as a precaution.