Healdsburg home outside Point Fire evacuation zone burns. Were wildfire embers to blame?

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Dani and Mike Price have been left to believe an air conditioner may have saved their lives.

With smoky skies from the Point Fire casting an eerie shadow over their 30-acre property and home on Dry Creek Road June 16, the couple took refuge in their guesthouse.

Central air, not available in the main home, gave Dani, who was suffering from bronchitis, a safe haven from the soot.

The couple had been given no order to leave their property, as they were about a mile and a half from the advancing perimeter of the Point Fire and outside of the evacuation zone. They went to sleep.

At 3:30 a.m. June 17, they received the most alarming wake-up call of their lives.

“A car was driving up the road and it was jarring,” Mike Price said, referring to the road that leads to their property. “Then we saw all the flashing lights and we thought ‘What the heck is going on here?’”

The ranch house the couple called home was engulfed in flames from the garage on one side to the kitchen on the other.

“We grabbed our sneakers and just ran and saw the smoke,” Dani Price said. “We were in complete and utter shock. We couldn’t believe what we were seeing. It was surreal.”

By 5 a.m., the one-story, 2,700-square-foot house had been reduced to rubble, with just a few charred wooden structures framing empty windows.

The guesthouse, just 1,000 feet away, had been spared. The flames didn’t spread, even amid the stiff winds that night.

“The scary thing is, if we had been in the house at the time of the fire, maybe we wouldn’t have woken up soon enough,” Mike Price said.

Also intact: another guest cottage on the property, as well as a refurbished barn with a cellar that stores more than a thousand wine bottles for the couple’s two business ventures: Maison du Prix, a global online wine shop, and Fat Dragon, a wine label they had launched just a week before the fire.

The property’s prized 11-acre vineyard, planted mostly to Rhone varietals, appeared unscathed.

And nine chickens, in a coop just 12 feet from the burning house, survived.

“After the fire, they were all cuddled up in a ball in the coop,” Dani said. “I want to bring them closer to us (in the guesthouse) because they’re probably thinking ‘Where are my people?’”

‘Wind is the enemy’

For the Prices, however, the prime question in that hour and in the days since has been: What caused the fire?

The Dry Creek Road home was not inside the expansive wildfire evacuation zone on the northern edge of Dry Creek Valley. So Northern Sonoma County Fire Protection District was dispatched to the address for a structure fire, said Jason Clay, spokesperson for Cal Fire’s Sonoma-Lake-Napa unit.

On Wednesday, Clay said that until an investigation has been conducted, the cause of the fire that claimed the Prices’ home cannot be determined.

But embers from wind-driven fires, like the Point Fire, can travel far, he said.

“In wind-driven fires, the crown of the trees can throw off a lot of sparks and they can go long distances,” Clay said. “In the Glass Fire of 2020, the embers blew from the eastern side of Napa Valley into the Mayacamas Mountains. As the crow flies, it’s roughly five miles.”

On the afternoon and evening of June 16, the Point Fire was being pushed by winds out of the northwest and low relative humidity, Clay said.

The Prices’ home sat southeast of the fire on Dry Creek Road, which rims the eastern floor of the valley, roughly paralleling West Dry Creek Road, where flames encroached June 16.

Gusts at the time hit 28 mph, according to the National Weather Service. And those prevailing winds put the Prices’ home directly in the path of embers borne aloft from the fire.

It was still difficult, though, for the Prices to imagine an ember could potentially travel that distance and ignite a fire to burn their home.

“We never connected the winds to the destruction of our home,” said Mike, sharing their reaction in the immediate aftermath.

Major wildfires, of course, can create their own wind systems and extreme weather events, sometimes generating pyrocumulonimbus storm clouds to generate thunderstorms and even spawning tornadoes that can make the infernos grow even faster.

Fueled by winds that reached up to 68 mph, the Tubbs Fire traveled at terrifying speed from the rural northern part of Calistoga into residential areas in northern Santa Rosa on Oct. 8, 2017. Erratic, gusty winds caused spot fires well beyond the fire front as it roared across 12 miles in less than four hours, leaping across the six-lane Highway 101 and frontage roads into Coffey Park.

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