The purpose of today’s post is to provide a glimpse into our recent wildfires experience and to offer some practical advice to collectors based upon that experience. What we learned is that no matter how much you think something like this will likely never happen to you – in fact, it can and therefore it makes sense to be prepared.
First off, I want to inform everyone that my family, home and all of our collectibles are now safe and essentially back to their pre-fire condition and locations. With regard to our own situation, everything has been cleaned up so that you would never know anything ever happened and, in the process, we are now probably more organized than ever before. With regard to our business and the website, we expect to resume all aspects very shortly. Every morning we wake up feeling extremely fortunate and grateful for this possibility.
Second, we would like to tell all of those who attempted to call or email during October, that we very much appreciate your concern and efforts to reach out. I say attempted as our power, internet and telephone land lines were down for a period of eight days beginning on October 8. The disruption in our ability to communicate was exacerbated by the destruction of numerous cell towers in the area.
I would like to apologize for not posting sooner, however, I have been extremely busy attempting to get our extended family’s situation back to the “new” normal that we here in Sonoma County now find ourselves in.
For any of you who may not have heard (and I have now spoken to a few in various parts of the country), last month the most destructive fire in U.S. history occurred in Sonoma County, California. Unbelievably, still, it was centered in and around our hometown of Santa Rosa (pre-fire population 175,000). It has now been three weeks since the fires were put out and we are still having a hard time wrapping our minds around what has taken place in our once beautiful city – known around the world as the gateway to the Northern California Wine Country.
A Horrific Night
At 9:43 PM on Sunday, October 8th, the most destructive of multiple area wildfires, the Tubbs Fire, ignited outside of Calistoga, in neighboring Napa County. The fire was driven west into Sonoma County and the City of Santa Rosa by unusually strong (for us) near Hurricane force winds that saw gusts up to 74 mph. By 3 AM on Monday morning, the fire had laid waste to the corridor connecting the two counties and destroyed the northern part of Santa Rosa. The fire spread over 17 miles in just over five hours (see Figure 1).
The speed and intensity of the Tubbs Fire is said to be unprecedented in U.S. history. It occurred in the black of night, as power was immediately cut in many areas due to downed power lines. There was little or no warning for most residents in its path and it is a miracle there was not a greater loss of life. Among the hardest hit neighborhoods were Fountain Grove (first video), in the hills to the north of the city and in Coffey Park. Images of the latter have since been widely circulated – forever linking the destruction in our city to that which occurred in Hiroshima, Japan at the end of WW2 (second video).
We had many friends living in these two communities, especially Coffey Park. Most of them lost everything. One of my friends told me, “There was a knock on our door early in the morning telling us we needed to leave immediately. I helped my wife, our two small children and our two animals into my wife’s SUV. I turned to get into my car – but it was already on fire. I got into my wife’s car and before we were out of our driveway, our house was on fire. Before we had reached the end of our street – our house had exploded and everything we owned was gone. The time lapse was less than 5 minutes… “
A second friend told me that one of her neighbors had two prized collectible corvettes in her garage. After the knock on her door she jumped in one and drove it to a nearby park – having been informed the fire was moving in the opposite direction. She then ran back to get the second corvette but it was already on fire. As she walked back to the the park, crying and distraught – she saw that the first car was engulfed in flames.
Eight Terrifying Days
On Monday morning, October 9, 2017, I awoke to sirens, smoke and fear. Our power was out. By this time there were multiple fires in the area (16 in Sonoma and Napa Counties) and three separate fires were approaching our home from the north, east and southeast. By the time I got outside, my next door neighbor had already evacuated. This would prove to be a constant source of elevated stress for me over the next several days as he holds a high position with Google and I frequently found myself wondering what information he was privy to that caused him to leave so immediately.
At this point the closest fire was perhaps three or four miles from our street. Many of the neighbors had already begun to pack up, so I returned to our home and woke my wife, Kay, and son, Eric. In hindsight, it was fortunate that we had not yet completed a remodel begun three months earlier. For this reason, only, we had a large number of moving boxes already on site. I instructed Eric to empty these boxes of our clothes, books, etc. – in order to make room for our computers, important papers, family photos and the most important of our collectibles.
As we began the extremely stressful task of “picking and choosing” what to try and save, my accountant, who is also a close personal friend, called. Kay was packing in my office at the time and the phone in that room worked for some inexplicable reason (it would continue to do so intermittently for the next 24 hours). He informed Kay that his home had just burned to the ground and, with the exception of a couple of framed movie posters he pulled off the walls while he was fleeing – he had lost everything. This included one of the finest sets of federal duck stamp prints (all museum restored and framed) and his stamp, post card and movie memorabilia collections (see Figure 2).
Included were many great rarities such as the original drawing by David Maass for the 1974 federal, federal duck stamp proofs and errors, many extremely rare fish and game stamps, many, many extremely rare Hawaiian postcards including several featuring the legendary Duke Kahanamoku and a sizable collection of early horror and sci-fi movie posters, lobby cards and stills. Over the course of 30 years I had helped him locate or acquire many of the items which were lost and we often went in on collections together. It was devastating news.
Whereas I had previously been working in a surreal state of confusion – the call from my friend brought the gravity of the situation into sharp focus and I felt a tremendous adrenaline rush surge through my body. This was really happening. I used the lone working phone to call my mother, who lived in Healdsburg (two towns north). She had been trying to get through for some time and was very worried for our safety. I asked if we, along with Kay’s sister and her husband (who both live three blocks from us) could come up and stay with her. She told me that while it was certainly OK – the roads north of Santa Rosa were already closed and it would be difficult to get there. We would have to first travel west toward the coast, then drive north and enter Healdsburg from the west.
At this point we believed there was a very high probability that one of the fires would be upon us within hours and that whatever we did not get into our vehicles would be gone forever. For those of you that have never been through such an experience, I can tell you it is beyond stressful.
Several hours later we had loaded all of our vehicles and reluctantly left our home, quite possibly for the last time, to caravan through the smoke and ash to my mother’s. On the way, we all had our car radios tuned to the local news channel and learned that thousands of first responders were already pouring into the Santa Rosa area. A command post was being set up at the fairgrounds and shelters opened throughout the city. These shelters would soon house over 40,000 people.
After reaching my mother’s house we learned that Healdsburg, itself, had fires advancing upon it from the northeast and southeast, the Pocket and Shiloh Fires, respectively. We were all glued to our electronic devices (my mother’s TV was out) and went back and forth between numerous emergency websites. My sister manages a large apartment complex in Santa Rosa and we soon learned that it was on fire. Needless to say, no one slept very much that night – the first of eight consecutive that we slept on the floor of her living room.
Early the next morning, on Tuesday, October 11, I returned to our house in Santa Rosa. It was a crazy scene, with many roads closed, hundreds of emergency vehicles everywhere, multiple sirens coming from all directions, soot, ash and smoke. When I arrived on our street, I found a couple of neighbors had slept in their cars in an effort to ward off looters. Our house was still standing. We were hearing all kinds of news about the fires – some true and some not – and not knowing what to believe led to our increased uneasiness and anxiety.
I attempted to find more boxes, however, very few business were open. By this point close to 5,000 homes and business had been destroyed in Santa Rosa, alone. Gas stations were running out of gas and I began to hear reports it could be a week or more until the gas stations would be refueled (this also proved to be largely untrue and if we drove around long enough – we always found a place to get gas). I finally found a place with some more boxes and began to pack up more stuff. Soon, Kay and Eric joined me and we took three more SUV’s full to my mothers.
Wednesday, October 12 would prove to be the scariest day of our lives. Once again I got up, checked the emergency websites, quickly ate and began the search for more boxes. Healdsburg now resembled a ghost town and virtually every business was closed. Fortunately, a UPS store was open and I bought 12 more boxes. The owner told me her house had burned the first night and she had lost everything. She had not slept for three nights – but she was trying to stay open as long as she could and help as many people as she could. I told her I was so sorry and thanked her for her help. Then I traveled down the 101 freeway – through the northern part of Santa Rosa – for the first time since it all began.
There Are No Words
It was very smokey and the skies were otherwise darkened with by-products from the fires. The smell was sickening and coming right through my vehicle despite the fact all the windows and vents were closed tight. I counted seven active fires within a two mile stretch along both sides of the freeway as I entered the northern part of town. Virtually everything on both sides of the road was either scorched or reduced to ash. Many structures were still burning and burnt out cars littered the side roads. On the hills above the city, I saw a wall of flames where the Hilton Hotel used to be. Emergency vehicles were everywhere. Traffic moved a snail’s pace as everyone was in a state of shock and disbelief.
When I exited the freeway and turned east toward our home, the hills above our house were obscured by thick billowing smoke and my heart sank. They were starting to barricade the streets around our house and officers from many different cities were patrolling the streets. Fortunately, in a few minutes I was relieved to find the house was still standing.
The Nuns Fire had now moved within 1 1/2 miles of our street and burning embers were falling in our driveway. I spent the morning packing and talking to the neighbors that remained on the street. One of them is a paramedic and volunteer fireman and he had access to a very accurate firefighters website we did not. All through the ordeal he was an invaluable source of information and a tremendous calming presence. I packed the twelve boxes and loaded my truck. I then started soaking the roof and trees around our house with a garden hose.
By mid afternoon the fire was now on the ridge above our street and it looked like our luck was running out. This, despite the fact there were over 8,000 first responders in our community battling the fires. The army, air force, coast guard, national guard, firemen and police officers from towns and cities as far away as Ohio to the east and Australia to the west – 382 municipalities across the world sent personal to Sonoma County within a few days. It was an incredible response and the entire community was so grateful.
Along with the expected fire trucks, helicopters and bombers, they were armed with 27 mega dozers and a huge helicopter brought down from Oregon that had a large tube extending beneath it to suck the water out of swimming pools. The largest supertanker in the world – a converted Boeing 747 was also brought in (see Figures 3 and 4).
It was like a war scene in an intense science fiction movie. Over the past couple of days, we had developed a great deal of respect and confidence in our “troops” and this had allowed us to remain cautiously optimistic – until we saw a huge billow of smoke that appeared to be coming toward us from the ridge (see Figure 5).
This was surely the end. At that point, everyone that had remained on the street said solemn good byes and left. We did not know if we would even see each other again. I went into our house and started throwing even the most fragile and valuable collectibles into paper bags and stacked my Land Cruiser to the ceiling. I did not care if anything got damaged at that point – as I was sure it would all be burned up within a couple of hours, anyway. When I finally left almost all of the streets in our area of town were now blocked off. As I maneuvered my way out of town in the heavy smoke and haze, I encountered only a couple of other cars in two or three miles. Everything was now quite depressing and bordered upon post-apocalyptic.
When I arrived at my mothers everyone informed me what we had witnessed on the ridge above our home was actually the result of a huge back-fire set by firefighters in a last ditch effort to save our neighborhood – and it had worked! Our home was safe for another day. Eric helped me unload the truck and this now made 11 SUV loads of our possessions we had evacuated to my mother’s house. That night I was so exhausted I actually slept for the first time in days.
The next day I slept in until 8:00. I was in no particular hurry to get back to the house. I was physically exhausted and did not feel up to packing more stuff. Besides, we now began to worry about the fires threatening Healdsburg and we did not know if it made sense to bring anything else there. I arrived back to our house late in the morning and spent the next couple of hours emptying and cleaning the refrigerators and freezers inside the house and the garage. The power was still out and they had begun to smell.
Like Rats in a Maze
I had a portable battery-powered radio on while I was working and began to hear reports they were thinking of evacuating the towns above and below Healdsburg, Geyserville and Windsor, respectively. This was quite troubling so I immediately left and made my way backup to Healdsburg. We all hung out, trying to decide what to do next. By early evening, they had begun to evacuate inside the city limits of Healdsburg, itself.
While my mother’s house in the center of town did not seem in immediate danger – we decided to hedge our bet. I called my cousin, Alicia, in San Rafael, an hour south in Marin County, and asked if we could move part of the stuff from my mother’s house to hers. She agreed it would be a good idea and we packed up all our SUVs and set off for San Rafael. By this point in time we were feeling quite distraught – like rats in a maze – running way from fires seemingly everywhere. On the way down to my cousin’s we heard reports of two fires that had started up in Marin County. Was no place safe?
The traffic on the freeway was crazy, as one would expect, and the drive took an eternity. My kind and gracious cousin greeted us warmly and allowed us to pile boxes in three rooms of her house. Her calm presence helped bring us down a notch or two from our elevated state of arousal. Nevertheless, we left quickly as we knew what awaited us on the freeway. After getting back to Healdsburg we found my mother and sister to be quite nervous and it was all we could do to calm them down. It would prove to be another sleepless night – as alerts came in on our phones at least once every hour. This night was the only time that I was personally worried for our physical safety but I attempted to put on a brave face for the benefit of everyone else.
As day broke I got up and checked the emergency sites. During the night, the fire command center must have repositioned their forces to combat the Pocket and Shiloh Fires as they appeared to be much less ominous on the live maps. Everything was OK, again, for the time being.
This Could Happen to You
I realize this blog is somewhat off topic (fish and game stamps) so I am going to cut to the chase here. This went on for 14 straight days before the fires in our area were contained (see Figure 6). At the end of 21 days, the fires had been extinguished and the smoke and ash abated.
We ended up being among the very fortunate ones in this situation. While we grieve for friend’s and family’s losses – we are so thankful that we escaped relatively unscathed. A little smoke, ash and soot. A few burning embers that did little or no damage. A lot of time moving everything around and no small amount of anxiety. At times like this – no one can explain to you why you were spared while others suffered such great losses. You experience a strange mixture of relief and guilt.
Over 6,700 homes and businesses were destroyed in Santa Rosa, alone. Over twenty people died. Many important collections of stamps, prints, postcards, bottles, cars. etc. were completely lost.
Like most of you, we have seen and heard about disasters in other parts of the country before – but never experienced one in our own backyard, so to speak. We have learned directly from our own experience and also in talking with others (including emergency personnel and insurance adjusters) that there are some preventative steps you can take to hopefully mitigate a potential worst case scenario and I would like to share them with you:
- Make sure your home is adequately insured and includes replacement cost coverage. Many people who did not have replacement cost coverage are not going to receive enough money from their insurance company to rebuild without taking out an additional loan(s).
- If you do not own your home and are renting, strongly consider obtaining renters insurance. I know several people who were renting and who lost everything – without insurance. For them, there is no way to replace all of their possessions. The same applies to storage units. Partial and whole complexes of storage units were destroyed. Many of the individual units that were not completely destroyed suffered major damage.
- In all cases, periodically take photos of your residence and your possessions and keep a record off-site (in a safe deposit box). Most smart phones and tablets have video capability today and a narrated video is very useful when dealing with insurance companies. Keep these updated.
- If you are a collector, check on the limits for your subject areas with your homeowners or renters insurance company. If the limits do not come close to proving adequate coverage – strongly consider obtaining collectibles insurance.
- Seriously consider keeping your most important and/or valuable items in a safe deposit box. This spreads your risk among two locations and you will find that the insurance rates for items stored in a safe deposit box are very favorable – a bargain, really.
- Keep records of as much of the remaining collection(s) as practical and store these in the safe deposit box also or, in the case of digital records and photos – back them up to the cloud. Photos and videos are very valuable, in addition to any receipts or descriptive information.
- Keep a number of boxes on site for emergency evacuation. I realize space is at a premium in this day and age. However, it may not always be possible to find a store open to buy boxes when you need them. In addition, depending on the disaster – once you initially leave your residence, you may not be able to (or permitted to) return for your items.
- Try to make it a habit to keep the gas tanks in your vehicles relatively full at all times. You may not always be able to find gas when you need it and even if you do – you can waste a lot of valuable time searching and waiting in line.
- If you do not already have one, purchase an old-fashioned battery operated portable radio or two and make sure everyone in the household knows where they are located. Keep well stocked with batteries. This may be your only source for emergency information in a disaster.
It is going to take a long time for our community to recover and rebuild. Estimates vary from three to five years. It will never be quite the same. A lot of historic buildings were lost, such as the famous Round Barn to the north of town (see figure 6); many of the best restaurants – some of which will never reopen; a large number of venerable business, including the framer I have used exclusively for 37 years. Our own remodel is still not done as many of the people working on it lost their homes and have more important concerns at this time.
On the other hand, the outpouring of support has been overwhelming and the American people always rise to the challenge in the aftermath of a disaster. I am sure this occasion will be no different. The clean-up is well under way and most of the homeowners and business owners I have talked to have already started the rebuilding process.
When all is said and done, many older structures will have been replaced by newer, updated versions, trees and landscaping will have been reinstalled and the underlying beauty of our area – the redwoods, the vineyards, the coastline and so on – will no longer be obscured. It has been raining off and on for a couple of weeks now and I can already see new, green grass sprouting up on the scorched hillsides…
At times like this, our hobbies take on newfound importance for their ability to capture our attention in a therapeutic way and provide a measure of order and stability in our lives. David R Torre Co. and Waterfowl Stamps and More will resume normal operations by January 1, 2018. We will pick up right where we left off and wish to reaffirm our intent to guide this wonderful hobby of ours well into the 21st Century. Again, thank you for all of your kind thoughts and words of encouragement. Our hearts go out to the tens of thousands of people in our community who were not as fortunate last month.