The signs are everywhere, and their messages simple. "Thank you, firefighters," reads one, "God bless." "Thank you for saving our town," reads another.
And another, "Thank you, firefighters, police, EMTs, first responders, and volunteers." Then finally, one that is more prevalent than the others, "The love in the air is thicker than the smoke."
I'm in Healdsburg, in the heart of California's wine country, just six weeks after wildfires ravaged Sonoma and Napa Valley. Healdsburg, whose population is about 12,000, is about an hour's drive north of the Golden Gate Bridge, in Sonoma County along the fabled Highway 101. The signs, some with letters haphazardly spray-painted and others neatly blocked off, are freckled around Sonoma as expressions of gratitude for the firefighters and countless others who fought the inferno day and night to save this stunningly picturesque area and especially the lives of its citizens.
As I walk along the paths of the tree-shaded Healdsburg Plaza -- think of it as an old-fashioned town square -- the air smells of autumn crispness, not of smoke. Not one bit, not even a puff. For a week or two after those fires that began Oct. 8, the news was filled with images of neighborhoods in flames and hilltops ablaze. One well-known news site even reported, "Rivers of wine boil as they leak out of scorched vineyards." With those perceptions, who would want to visit California wine country? Me, that's who.
And you. I don't have on blinders, certainly, and there is no diminishing the number of lives lost and property destroyed. As I drive through Sonoma, there are indeed vestiges of fire that transformed portions of Northern California's wine country into a fiery hell. Some areas look chillingly post-apocalyptic, with the bones of former grand homes and businesses now gray with ash.
But most of what I see is intact. The skies are still blue, the breezes cool, and the sun-dappled vineyards as rolling and beautiful as they were since my first visit nearly 30 years ago. Every turn of the road revealed vast wine estates and stunning vistas reminiscent of the old wine-growing regions of France, Italy and South Africa. It is not, as the news may have led us to believe, all gloom and doom.
Of the hundreds upon hundreds of wineries across the region, just a few burned completely, while others, numbering about a dozen, were heavily damaged or scorched by flames.
"Most of the wine regions were not affected," says Lisa Mattson, who is director of marketing at Healdsburg's Jordan Winery, where I visit for a wine tasting. Vineyards, she says, can be a "natural firebreak" and help to protect the wineries. Jordan Winery, like hundreds of others, was not touched except by layers of smoke that permeated the air.
The fires struck just after grape harvest, a high traffic time for tourists who come to Healdsburg and Sonoma for, among other things, the extravaganza of dazzling fall color of the vineyards.
And therein lies one reason I am in Healdsburg. I love autumn and all that it brings, and I've always wanted to see Sonoma County's vineyards in their glory, having seen them before only in spring and summer.