Fleeing the Bay Area fires

A first-person account of evacuating the Wine Country fires.

Spencer O'Brien Steele

Cece Giarman, Web Editor

WEB EXCLUSIVE After a long week of school and volleyball, I was more than excited to relax during my weekend in California’s wine country and cool down at my dear friend Natalia Varni’s home. I spent the October Sunday afternoon lounging around the pool and the night enjoying a true homestyle meal. With six other Convent & Stuart Hall students and the parents of my close friend, Priyanka Varni and Tony Varni, my three-day weekend getaway at their household in Kenwood was exactly what I needed.

Little did I know that “cool down” would only last until about 11:30 p.m. Sunday night.

After drifting off to sleep around 11 p.m., I was startled to awake 30 minutes later by Natalia, another one of my best friends and Mr. Varni standing next to the bed, faces pressed to the window. As the steady beeping of the fire alarm seemed to grow louder and louder and the smell of smoke increased, I awoke knowing something was not right.

I immediately joined them and I could not believe my eyes. From the top of the hill, I saw flames in not one, but two separate places. Straight ahead in the next valley over, bright red and orange lights combined as the jagged edges of the mountain made of trees and valley below burned. To my left, though the size of the fire itself was smaller, a much closer blaze had emerged at a local winery less than two miles away from the house.

Natalia Varni
A winery near to the Varni’s home caught fire the night of Oct. 9. This photo was taken out of the Varni’s house window.

Seeing the intense sight, the four of us continued to wake up Mrs. Varni and our four Stuart Hall friends who had joined us in the afternoon of lighthearted fun. Now fully awake, I turned on the news to see if I could find out more, but no news station was covering the dramatic scene outside.

A call was made to the wife of Ray Mulas, the fire chief of Shell Vista Fire Department and a friend of the Varnis. She told us to stay put and wait for another call back in the near future while she called her husband. After 15 minutes of anxious waiting and phone charging, the decision was made to leave. Mrs. Mulas told us that the department believed neither we nor the house was in immediate danger, but evacuation to her house in Sonoma would be a reasonable precaution.

Quickly packing up whatever was near to our bags, the dogs were harnessed and leashed, water was distributed, the switch of a flashlight was tested and proved dead — and the fear in the room rose.

I grabbed my car keys and shot my family group chat a quick, somewhat alarming text just before the electricity and wifi went out.

“There are some fires so we have to evacuate to Sonoma to the fam friends house.”

The nine of us filed into five different cars and agreed to form a strict caravan. After I surprisingly maneuvered out of the unlit driveway, I turned on what I considered “calming” music for me and my friend and our real night began.

The what usually would have been an easy 15-minute drive turned into a difficult nearly hour drive — one most 17-year-old drivers should not have to experience. In addition to the midnight darkness, the streets were filled with firetrucks, ambulances and police cars. Heading towards and away from the fires, we had to pull over about five times. Throughout the night, I became increasingly accustomed to the sound of sirens.


Other than first responders and emergency services, there were a surprisingly small number of other cars on the road. I was, and still am, confused on why more people were not evacuating like we were.

Although major roads and streets had been closed for apparent safety issues and we were redirected by firemen at different checkpoints, we still ended up driving directly next to a field full of flames. This was probably the scariest part of the night.

To make the situation worse, powerful winds over 50 mph were blowing, so branches and debris of all sizes and kinds covered the road. Behind the wheel of a small leisure car, I was quite concerned about not only damaging the vehicle, but also if I would physically be able to pass the natural roadblocks. Luckily I was the third car in line, trailing behind the Varni’s truck and Toyota Sequoia, so the path was cleared a little and made slightly easier for me. Sort of.

As we drove on, the fires grew by the second. Every time I glanced to my left or in the rearview mirror I was shocked at the new size the flames and the amount of land which had been enveloped. I wondered how the night had turned into this.

Finally, around 12:50 a.m. Monday morning, we arrived at the Mulas household. Janie Mulas opened the door with welcoming arms and we immediately sat down with glasses of water in front of the TV. I looked down at my phone and had texts from not only concerned parents, but grandparents and friends who had learned of the fires and were aware of my weekend plans. The news was now blaring evacuation notices and warnings for the whole Bay Area and showed maps of danger zones. It was then that we decided to keep moving and go all the way to the City.

We got back into the cars after agreeing to caravan once again until we got onto the highway. I turned the music back on, popped a piece of gum into my mouth to give me something to do for the drive ahead and sent another text to my parents.

“Fires are worse than we thought, going back to SF to sleep at the Varni’s.”

The whole world outside seems was desolate. Only the sound of my music, the quiet car and my friend’s soft breathing of sleep filled the car. Fifty minutes later, we had made it to Jordan Park.

We plopped in front of the TV to watch the news for updates on the disaster in process. As expected, the fires had grown and images of smoke-filled landscapes flashed on the screen. I looked around the silent room at the caring people around me and thought of how fortunate and lucky we were.

After some sleep, I woke up to Mrs. Varni waking her daughter. The two of them had to leave as soon as possible to drive to Petaluma to pick up their horse in a danger zone. After they left, I watched some more news and was heart-broken to see more fires had started and that an estimated 200 acres had already been burned in the North Bay. All I could say was, “Wow.”

When I opened the house door to walk to my car, I was struck by how much smoke had actually made its way into San Francisco. As I drove home I kept replaying the dream-like night over and over again in my head.

Later that day after we had all parted ways, I received a text from Natalia.

“It’s gone.”

Natalia Varni
The Varni family’s home post-fire. The property is located at the top of the Kenwood hill and overlooks numerous wineries.
Natalia Varni
The Varni’s home from the back side. What remains of the property’s hot tub is pictured bottom right. 40,000 people were forced to evacuate.

Three accompanying photos show what little is left of the house I had been visiting since kindergarten. Sadly, the Varni’s house is only one of the thousands burned.

Most homes affected by the fires belonged to full-time residents who lost everything.