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Harrowing Stories of Escapes and Defiance Amid Mendocino Fires

Even before the flames came, Jonathan Frei could hear the blistering winds barreling through the hills of Redwood Valley, rousting him from his house on Tomki Road.

At 12:43 Monday morning, Frei looked out and saw an orange light begin to peel across Pine Hill. He jumped in his car and drove up and down the road a couple times just to gauge how bad things were. Things were bad.

“You could hear the roar of the fire,” Frei recalled, standing in the embers of where his home had once stood.

Joe Rosato Jr.
A bicycle sits in the burned-out rubble on Tomki Road in Redwood Valley, where eight people died and 245 homes burned.

This tranquil wooded corner of Mendocino County had seen fires before. But among the verdant vineyards, stoic mountains and tall trees — fire seemed like distant history.

But as he looked at flames heading his direction, Frei knew the delicate truce with nature had ended. He raced home to wake his sons, piling into the car and racing South down Tomki Road — reaching the point where it meets up with West and East Roads. Up ahead, he could see their path out was blocked by downed trees engulfed in flames.

“When I saw it at the end of the road, it was on fire,” Frei said. “I kind of knew it was serious and the way out was to go North.”

In the inferno beginning to chew its way through neighborhoods, the only escape route seemed the road North to the nearby town of Willits, the road hardly anyone uses. Paul Frey, winemaker at the famous Frey Vineyards, took to the same escape route with his family.

“There’s a firestorm coming down the mountain at one a-m” Frey said. “And the road was blocked to the South so we had to go North.”

Joe Rosato Jr.
A couple looks through the ashes of a home on Tomki Road in Redwood Valley in Mendocino County.

A video posted on social media by Andre Epstein and his wife Neda Monshat showed their harrowing escape through tall blistering flames as they headed South on Tomki Road — after failing to get word people were evacuating to the North. Flames licked at their car as Epstein is heard to whisper “I don’t even know if this is safe to drive through.” Somehow fate guided them safely through the flames — to 101 highway.

Further down the hill on West Road, Ashley Oldham was home asleep when she was awakened by a friend who jumped her gate and pounded on her door.

“When we woke up I looked out,” Oldham said. “I saw all these hills on fire here.”

Oldham had time to scoop up her daughter and her dogs and flee in the friend’s car. Fifteen minutes later, another friend would watch her house burn to the ground.

Joe Rosato Jr.
A lion statue stands at the entrance to a burned down home on Tomki Road in Redwood Valley.

“It was definitely by far the most terrifying night of my life,” Oldham said Saturday while revisiting the pile of rubble where her house had stood.

In the small community of Redwood Valley the fires would claim 245 homes. Eight people died — a staggering statistic considering the area’s population of just over 1,700. Among the dead, 14-year old Kai Shepherd who would die in his driveway just off Tomki Road after separating from his parents in the hellish inferno.

As firefighters continued their weeklong battle against the fire up near Potters Valley, the nearby town of Ukiah took on a strange emotional hue as fire crews staged in the fairgrounds next to a tent city of evacuees, National Guardsmen on break ambled into coffee shops, helicopters landed and took off again from the airport, ferrying buckets of fire retardant back to the smoldering hills.

Entire neighborhoods in Redwood Valley had been reduced to a long barren swath of gray; torched cars with melted hubcaps. A pair of lion statues now standing at the entrance to nothing. A kitchen stove melted and tilted as if it was trying to claw its way into the earth.

An armada of PG&E trucks lined the roads, replacing power poles and sawing through downed trees. Up at Frey Vineyards, Paul Frey was shipping out barrels of already bottled wine, while making plans to crush the grapes that had survived. Several family homes on the property had burned, along with the winery’s office, storage tanks and some of his vineyards

But Frey said three other wineries were coming to help him bottle up his wine. He insisted — things were moving forward.

“We’ve been doing this nonstop for 37 years.” Frey said with a soft defiance. “And we’ll continue to go.”

Inside her pottery studio in Ukiah, Jan Hoyman related her harrowing escape out of the hills of Redwood Valley, just a mile from the Frey Vineyard. Trapped by the flames, she and another couple and their children hiked to the home of a friend where they found a four-wheel drive truck left behind with the keys still in it. They drove away to safety.

Although her home was burned, Hoyman said she’s has been moved by the outpouring of support — the people stopping by to offer a place to stay, food — anything she might need.

Like all those interviewed for this story, Hoyman said she hoped to return to the mountain and rebuild. 

“I lost my home but I have my community,” Hoyman said. “And I have my home with my friends, so I’m very grateful.”

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