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LGBTs Caught in Horrific N. Bay Fires

by Heather Cassell

The Clover Stornetta Dairy in Sonoma was reduced to charred remains as wildfires swept through the North Bay this week
The Clover Stornetta Dairy in Sonoma was reduced to charred remains as wildfires swept through the North Bay this week  (Source:Alex Madison)

Fast-moving wildfires fueled by dry brush and Diablo winds roared through the hillsides and vineyards in Napa and Sonoma counties starting late Sunday night and continued to burn out of control.

LGBT winery owners and other community members were among the evacuees and those who lost homes or had businesses damaged.

Fountaingrove Lodge, a luxury LGBT retirement community in Santa Rosa, suffered some damage, according to media reports and facility officials. Residents were evacuated shortly after midnight October 9, Robert May, executive director of Fountaingrove Lodge, told the Los Angeles Times.

The complex, operated by Oakmont Management Group, includes apartments, assisted living, and memory care facilities. All were evacuated, according to a post on the company's website. The Times reported that Villa Capri, the assisted living facility, burned to the ground.

"It was a harrowing experience," May told the paper. "The flames were right in front of us."

The residents were transported to senior facilities in Concord and Albany, according to Fountaingrove Lodge's website.

May didn't respond to the Bay Area Reporter's request for comment by press time.

An updated statement on the website Tuesday said that the lodge structures were unharmed.

"Our understanding as of today is the Varenna community sustained slight damage to the northern side of the property, and Villa Capri was destroyed in the fire," Oakmont officials wrote. "We are grateful to say the structures of Fountaingrove Lodge and the Terraces were unharmed, however, expect there will be smoke damage."

"Our focus continues to be on the care, welfare, and safety of our residents and staff," wrote Chris Kasulka, president and CEO of Oakmont Management Group. "We want to thank our staff, residents, and Oakmont families for all of their support during this difficult time."

Authorities began evacuating people shortly around 11 p.m. October 8 after the first fires broke out. As of Wednesday, 17 fires were burning. New fires sparked Tuesday, despite a lull in the weather that aided firefighters in tackling the multiple blazes throughout northern California.

More than 20,000 people evacuated Napa and Sonoma counties alone, according to authorities.

At least nine counties - Butte, Calaveras, Lake, Mendocino, Napa, Nevada, Solano, Sonoma, and Yuba - were affected.

The worst fires are the Tubbs Fire in Sonoma and the Atlas Fire in Napa, which continued blazing Wednesday. Officials said that 170,000 acres have been burned in six major fires.

More than 3,500 structures have been destroyed, according to Cal Fire's website. Those include homes, businesses, and wineries.

Shelters were quickly opened to aid evacuees. Local hotels offered shelter and Airbnb activated its Open Home program.

"A lot of evacuees are being put up at hotels and bed and breakfasts," said Jamie Cherry, who owns the Inn on First in Napa with his husband, Jim Gunther. He recalled how quickly the city came together following the earthquake three years ago. "We are all trying to put our best feet forward to help people in need."

Some other LGBT evacuees are finding shelter with friends in Mendocino County and Sebastopol on the Sonoma coast. Jim Roberts, a gay man who owns The Madrones in Mendocino, helped a friend who fled from Healdsburg, he told the B.A.R. Tuesday morning.

B.A.R. contributor Jack Fritscher said some friends were making their way to safety at his home in Sebastopol Monday afternoon. Christian Sullberg, a gay man in Healdsburg and bakery owner who's board president of Positive Images, said they were checking and reaching out to Sonoma's LGBT youth via the organization's internal Facebook group page and mobilizing to assist Sonoma's LGBT community.

Gary Saperstein, co-principal of Out in the Vineyards, texted the B.A.R. that he evacuated the city of Sonoma Monday.

Gary Carnivele, owner of and host of OutBeat Radio, returned to the city of Sonoma with his partner Tuesday from a trip in Texas. He was searching for friends who were close to the epicenters of the fires, he told the B.A.R.

The death toll stood at 21 people by Wednesday and was expected to increase, authorities said. An estimated 315 of 600 people reported missing were found, according to media reports. Authorities said Wednesday that 285 people were reported missing.

The American Red Cross is assisting with evacuation centers and Facebook activated its Safety Check program.

An estimated 150 people suffered fire-related injuries, authorities said. Six individuals were flown to a hospital in San Francisco to be treated for burns late Monday afternoon. Two of the burn victims were in critical condition Tuesday, according to ABC7 News.

LGBT Wine Country

The Fountaingrove Lodge LGBT retirement community, shown here in an undated photo, was spared in the Tubbs Fire.

The fires affected LGBT wine country residents and businesses.

The Atlas Fire erupted north of Calistoga, a popular gay escape on the northernmost tip of the Napa Valley.

Gay vintner John Newmeyer had to evacuate when a neighbor knocked on his door at 3:30 a.m. October 9, he wrote in an email to the B.A.R. Newmeyer and his business partner, David Mahaffey, who's straight, own the boutique winery Heron Lake Vineyard, which is produced under the Olivia Brion label. The men were allowed back onto their property at 10 a.m., where they did what they could to protect it. They were forced to evacuate a second time after the Atlas Fire circled them again an hour later.

"We watched from a mile away, with great anxiety, as huge plumes of smoke rose over our area," Newmeyer wrote.

They were allowed back onto their property at 4 p.m.

"We were gratified to find our house still standing and the vines mostly unharmed," he wrote, stating their saving grace was the mowed grassland around the property and among the vineyards.

There was a little damage to the property and the stored wine. The men lost an estimated $6,500 of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and a small case storage shed near the house, Newmeyer wrote.

"Fortunately, 98 percent of our wine cases had been stored not there but in a big storage facility down in the valley," he wrote. "Our winery and barrels of more recent vintages are in a nearby underground tunnel and were untouched."

Among Newmeyer's nine LGBT friends and neighbors, three homes were burned and six homes were spared, he wrote.

"Next spring our hilly land will once again be green and lovely, but our sadness about our neighbors' losses will endure," he wrote.

Chris Johansen, who owns Embrace Calistoga, a bed and breakfast, with his husband, Brent Riedberger, told the B.A.R. Tuesday that downtown Calistoga was untouched. That all changed overnight, when evacuations were ordered and the Napa County town was threatened. Calistoga was evacuated by late Wednesday afternoon.

Officials said at a Wednesday news conference that resources from surrounding states were being brought in to fight the fires.

They didn't have power and cellphone service as of late Sunday night, but Johansen anticipated power would be restored sometime Monday, he said.

As of Tuesday, more than 91,000 customers were still without power, according to PG&E. Cellphone service remained unreliable, but emergency cellphone towers were being installed to provide service, authorities said. Comcast worked to install free Wi-Fi service in the affected areas through Friday, reported ABC 7 News.

While many of the LGBT-owned accommodations and businesses were located near or directly in town, LGBT-owned Chateau de Vie was located closer to the fire. Johansen and Riedberger reached out to the owners, but the men hadn't heard from them, he said.

The fires were also north of the city of Napa, which so far was untouched by the fire, said Cherry. Authorities said Wednesday that the city of Napa remain on evacuation alert.

Geyserville was ordered to evacuate Wednesday.

Despite the devastation and ongoing fires some restaurants and tasting rooms were open in Napa.

Santa Rosa

The fires have ravaged Sonoma County, particularly Santa Rosa.

Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency Monday. Vice President Mike Pence, in California to rally support for President Donald Trump's tax plan, said he spoke with Brown and said the federal government stands ready to assist.

Trump approved a federal disaster declaration Tuesday.

The fire burned a quarter of a mile away from Sullberg's home in Santa Rosa. He was up late playing music when transformers started blowing throughout his neighborhood, he told the B.A.R.

"I saw this crazy spark, like lightning. It sounded like fireworks going off lighting up our neighborhood," he said, but when they went outside, "we looked over and it seemed like it was 'The Lord of the Rings,' this crazy moving fire. I could see it just over the trees."

There was little information and no authorities at 2:40 a.m., Monday, so the couple jumped into their truck to check on their businesses in Healdsburg and Windsor. Traffic as people fled the area was insane, he said.

"I've never seen people drive so crazy off the freeway, they were off-roading it," said Sullberg.

By Tuesday police were patrolling Santa Rosa to ward off looters.

Carnivele was stunned.

"I've lived in Sonoma County for 20-plus years, I've never experienced anything like this," said Carnivele, who is fortunate that authorities brought a generator Tuesday for a cellphone tower that resides on his property just outside of the main square. "It's smoky, gray, creepy and still."

Many LGBT-owned vineyards and businesses in Napa and Sonoma didn't respond to the B.A.R.'s attempts to contact them.

Officials in Berkeley and Oakland warned of high fire danger from 11 p.m. Wednesday to 5 p.m. Thursday.

To aid LGBT wine country fire victims, Positive Images is collecting donations, which can be made to, or a check can be sent to Positive Images, 200 Montgomery Drive, Suite C, Santa Rosa, CA 95404 with #sonomacountyfires in the comment section online or memo section on the check.

Napa's LGBTQ Connection, an LGBT youth organization, is open and providing a safe gathering space, food, water, free Wi-Fi, charging stations, child care, and other needs to the community. The organization is also gathering supplies and taking donations, said Ian Stanley, program director. The organization is currently in need of gift cards to major retailors for food, clothing, blankets, child care supplies, and facemasks to protect from the smoke. To donate, visit or drop supplies off at 780 Lincoln Avenue, Napa, CA 94558.

San Francisco-based Rainbow World Fund is mobilizing to raise funds and will have the Rainbow World Fund bus parked at Jane Warner Plaza in the Castro to gather supplies to take immediately to Napa and Sonoma by Thursday, said Executive Director Jeff Cotter. For more information, visit To donate, visit


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