Owner remains hopeful after Kincade Fire destroys his winery

Chaffin Mitchell

Coming home after wildfire evacuations is a relief for some families, but can spell complete heartbreak for others. Some residents are returning home after California's largest evacuation in history to find their home and belongings have turned to ashes.

Fires ignited across California and were fanned by strong winds last week -- the blazes threatened expensive Los Angeles area homes and the Getty Center, swept through agricultural land, closed the 405 Freeway, and almost burned down a presidential library.

Even though firefighters worked tirelessly to extinguish multiple fires, they weren't able to protect everyone's homes and businesses.

Ken Wilson, the owner of Soda Rock Winery, bought the winery in 2000 and served patrons local wine for 19 years until the exploding Kincade Fire threatened his business.

As of Monday morning, the Kincade Fire has charred more than 77,000 acres of land in Sonoma County, which is located right in the heart of California wine country, since it first ignited on Oct. 23, 2019. It is 80 percent contained.

Ken Wilson standing in front of what used to be Soda Rock WineryAccuWeather Photo/Bill Wadell)

Wilson returned from the mandatory evacuation to find his winery in ruins.

"Those steel beams originally came off a bridge, I think in Dry Creek Valley in the 1800s, and you can see they're all twisted and bent, so it got pretty hot in there," Wilson told AccuWeather Reporter Bill Wadell in an interview.

Soda Rock Winery distilled to ashes after the Kincade Fire destroyed his business in Healdsburg, California.

"A lot of blood, sweat, and tears went into it for many years so it's hard to imagine all of those years going away," Wilson said.

However, Wilson is looking at the glass as half full, despite all of his losses. The flames spared his vineyards, and much of the inventory of wine is stored off-site and is still good to sell. Also, he is thankful his employees are OK.

Soda Rock Winery before the Kincade fire turned it to dust.

"I imagine things will get better around here also with the fires. I think that maybe we will have different management in place," Wilson said.

"We left in our pajamas and that was it," Bernadette Laos told AccuWeather reporter Bill Wadell in an interview. Laos and her husband, Justo, had heeded evacuation warnings as the Kincade Fire approached.

When mandatory evacuations were lifted, Laos said she hesitated to return home to see the destruction. But when they did return, they found the fire had decimated their home near Geyserville, California, and they began sifting through charred possessions.

It took hours of searching and some help from friends, but Laos told Waldell they were able to salvage jewelry -- and her husband's wedding ring.

A friend of Bernadette Laos displays jewelry salvaged from her home that was destroyed by the Kincade Fire near Geyserville, Calif., Thursday, Oct. 31, 2019. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

"I'm still in shock. There's nothing like going home," Laos said.

Justo and Burnadette Laos show a photo of the home they rented that was destroyed by the Kincade Fire near Geyserville, Calif. Thursday, Oct. 31, 2019. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Ellie Laks looked across the animal sanctuary founded on her dream to help animals and people alike. A few horses stood calmly in a pasture, waiting patiently at the gate, but thick smoke was rolling in over the mountains. The Tick Fire was rapidly approaching.

"It's moving very, very fast," Laks said, a few flames visible from over the mountains. The orange-brown smoke blotted out most of the sky.

With the power out, Laks took to Twitter to call for help in evacuating the 100 or so animals that called the sanctuary home as the Tick Fire crept over the mountainside.

"The Gentle Barn is home to animals who have nowhere else to go because they're too old, too sick, too lame or too scared to be adoptable," Laks told AccuWeather in a phone interview.

Dogs, birds, cows, sheep, pigs and other animals that called the sanctuary home were loaded up and driven off to about four different locations. Even a few oddballs like Earl the emu and King the llama had found a new temporary refuge.

Problems with the evacuation arose, however, when animals such as Zeus, an old, 750-pound pig, physically couldn't step up into a trailer to evacuate. Pigs typically live to 4 to 5 years old, according to The Gentle Barn. Zeus is still kicking at 12 years of age.

The sanctuary also had concerns for one of their older cows, who they feared would have a fatal slip trying to step into the trailer.

And then there was Zoe.

The Belgian draft horse had put on the brakes at the door of the trailer, refusing to leave her home.

"There was nothing wrong with her," Laks said. "There's nothing physically challenging for her, she just didn't want to, and how are you going to make a 2,500-pound horse do anything?"

From the afternoon until midnight, Laks, staff and volunteers worked to load the animals that they could into trucks and trailers. They crated the chickens and turkeys, led the goats by leashes and their horns and carried the sheep before loading the horses and cattle into the remaining trailers. The volunteers that didn't have trailers and couldn't lead the animals lined the street at the edge of the five acres, armed with fire extinguishers, jackets, and blankets trying to put out approaching flames.

Weighing their options with the winds starting to ease up, the decision was made to keep animals like Zeus, Zoe and a potbelly pig, named Jellie, at the sanctuary while staying up for the rest of the night to keep an eye on the progress of the flames.

The animals made it safely through the night, but the sanctuary owner said they are praying for the winds to die down and end the threat for flames to spread toward the refuge for the animals.

The Tick Fire has been 100 percent contained after it burned 4,615 acres in Los Angeles County over the course of 10 days. The fire claimed 22 structures and damaged another 27.