Indian American pediatrician Paulomi Shah was fast asleep Oct. 9 morning in her Fountaingrove, Calif., home, when she got a call from a neighbor, who told her to look out of her window.
“There was a huge orange ball quickly coming towards us. My neighbor told us we had to immediately evacuate,” Shah told India-West. Power was luckily restored for about 10 minutes, allowing Shah to get her young children, in-laws, and husband out of the home and into a car before the flames hit Fountaingrove, which is largely comprised of Indian American families.
Shah, who is president of the North Bay Indo American Association, estimated that 12 to 15 Indian American families in her neighborhood completely lost their homes. In total, about 2,000 structures have been destroyed in Napa, Lake, Sonoma, Mendocino, and Butte counties due to heavy winds gusting at 50 to 70 miles per hour which have fanned flames throughout the region.
At least 10 people have died, and more than 200 have been hospitalized, primarily due to smoke inhalation. California Governor Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency.
Fires have also sprung up in the Anaheim Hills area of Southern California, which is home to a large population of Indian Americans.
The Shahs evacuated their home in Fountaingrove, but had no idea where to go next during the terrifying night. As they drove along the highway, they saw other towns entirely engulfed in flames. “There was so much smoke,” said the physician, adding that she could not take her in-laws, who suffer from asthma, to a local shelter. The family finally ended up at a Doubletree Inn in Berkeley, Calif., before decamping at a friend’s home in San Jose, Calif., where they will remain indefinitely.
Their home – which is still standing – is also still in danger, as firefighters have been able to contain only five percent of the flames in the area, and are focusing on containment, rather than saving homes.
“The firemen are out there, but there’s no water and no manpower,” Shah told India-West. NBIAA had been planning a huge Diwali celebration, which will be cancelled due to the devastation in the area.
“Our community has really come together in this time of crisis. People who have their homes are offering shelter to people who are homeless,” she said, adding that her husband, who is a psychiatrist, is offering free trauma counseling.”
Raj and Parmjit Bassi, who also live in Fountaingrove with their two teen children, have entirely lost their home. “Our entire neighborhood is in ashes,” she tearfully told India-West from a friend’s home, to where the family has evacuated for an indefinite period of time.
“At 10:30 that night, we heard there were fires in Napa County. At midnight, we heard the fire was approaching our street. We didn’t have much time to evacuate. We ran out with nothing as we saw the fire coming towards our house,” said Bassi, noting that the five Indian American families who live on her street all lost their homes. “Fountaingrove is mostly gone,” she said.
Police helped the Bassis evacuate. “There were lots of people walking on the street not knowing where to go,” said Raj Bassi.
The Bassis have attempted to return to their home in the day since, but police have closed off the roads leading into the neighborhood, as fires are still burning.
“We are all in so much shock. So many memories lost. There are no words for what we are going through,” said Bassi, adding she is not sure what her family will do next.
The fires have devastated several Indian American businesses in Sonoma County, Calif. Deepak Gulrajani, owner of the Nicholson Ranch Winery in Sonoma, told India-West he felt very fortunate that the fires that decimated large parts of the region skirted around his 40-acre property.
“The fires burned all our landscaping trees, but luckily, the building is intact,” he said, noting that a slate roof, and stucco – a big fire insulator – on the wooden structure saved his winery, which he opened in 2003, after experimenting with winemaking as a hobby for several years.
The boutique winery produces 5,000 to 6,000 cases per year. All the wine is safe, said Gulrajani, noting it is stored in a cave underneath the ground, temperature controlled to 60 degrees year round.
Next year’s production is also safe, said the winemaker, noting that his harvesting season ended Oct. 6, two days before the fires. Miraculously, the fires that burned his landscaping did not destroy the vines. Gulrajani predicted that even singed vines would produce a fruitful crop the following year.
“Vines are very hardy. It takes a lot to kill them,” he told India-West, estimating that restoration of the winery would cost about $200,000. The facility is without power or water, as the intense fires damaged the well; Gulrajani said it would take two to three weeks before he can open again.
The winemaker and his family live in Napa, and were evacuated from their home for about 12 hours, but have since been able to return.
Indian restaurants in the region have also taken an economic hit. Everest Indian Cuisine in Santa Rosa, owned by Nepali American Gopal Gauchan, remains shuttered, as it is located in a red zone in which traffic is not allowed through.
Gauchan, who owns a branch of his restaurant in nearby Petaluma, told India-West he has received no information on when he can re-open. Though the fires did not penetrate the facility in Santa Rosa, power was nevertheless knocked out, leaving hundreds of pounds of food rotting. “Everything is spoiled. It will all have to go in the garbage,” he said.
Gauchan and his family – who live in Santa Rosa – were not forced to evacuate. But several of his employees were mandated to leave their homes. Gauchan is providing shelter in his home to his employees for an indefinite period of time.
The Yeti Restaurant in Santa Rosa has also shut down, along with its branch in Glen Ellen, which is situated alongside the closed Highway 12. Narayan Somname, owner of the restaurants, said residents are experiencing heavy smoke inhalation, making it very difficult to breathe.
Gidu Shroff, who lives in Atherton, Calif., and owns a second home in Napa, told India-West that his structure is standing today, but there are no guarantees as heavy winds were scheduled to blow through the region again Oct. 10 evening. “I’m crossing my fingers. What else can you do,” he said.