Searching for My Stepbrother in the Wildfires

Our resident wine expert tries to find her stepbrother in the middle of the California fires.

Searching for My Stepbrother in the Wildfires


I first began to worry about the whereabouts of my stepbrother around 6 a.m. on Monday, Oct. 8.

I had bolted out of bed around 3 a.m. when a strong smell of smoke permeated my bedroom. As someone who lost her house in the 1991 Oakland hills fire, which killed 25 people and destroyed 3,200 homes, I am hypersensitive to the odor of fire, particularly when high temperatures and strong winds rake the Bay Area every October.

A quick check of Twitter showed there wasn’t a fire near my home in Berkeley (although that would change a few minutes later). Instead, I read that there was a huge wildfire raging north in Napa and Sonoma counties and in Santa Rosa. The bucolic area, which I know intimately as a wine writer, was being transformed into an inferno.

It’s also where my stepbrother Jim Conley lives.

So at 3:45 a.m., I sent him a Facebook message: “Be safe with all the fires in Santa Rosa and Napa.”

Jim and I often communicate via Facebook. Jim has some developmental issues and at 62, lives alone in a one-bedroom apartment stuffed with Marilyn Monroe memorabilia and more than 1,000 DVDs he has bought or recorded from television. For years, Jim was resistant to learning how to use a computer. My siblings and I enrolled him in classes at the Santa Rosa Public Library but he never learned much more than the fundamentals. But then we got him an iPhone and set him up on Facebook. It completely opened up his life. He reconnected with old friends from George Washington High School in San Francisco and from Senatobia, Mississippi, where he once lived. Jim was always posting funny gifs and photos, sending messages or video chatting with his brother in Italy. He exulted in every new “friend” he made.

Then a tweet alerted me to a grass fire that had broken out in the Berkeley Hills. For the next few hours I was distracted as I reported and wrote about the fire for Berkeleyside, a news site I co-founded. By 5:20 a.m. a story was up and the grass fire was under control, which allowed me to look more deeply into what was happening in the North Bay.

The news was not good. What came to be known as the Tubbs fire had erupted in Calistoga in Napa County and headed its way west, gobbling up tinder-dry grasses and trees at a frightening speed. The winds were so fierce that embers were flying everywhere, igniting multiple fires at once. People were fleeing for their lives. Vineyards that I knew well were going up in flames and were barely recognizable. Then I saw some news that a Kohl’s Department store in Santa Rosa was on fire. My heart lurched. That was near Jim’s house. Had the flames reached him?

At 6:19 a.m. I sent an email to my brother in San Francisco and Jim’s sister in Oregon with the subject heading “Huge fire by Jimmy’s house in Santa Rosa.” I wrote: “20,000 acres. I am worried since I can’t reach him. I heard Hopper Road was evacuated, the Journey’s End mobile home park is destroyed, Kohl’s nearby may have been evacuated, Kaiser evacuated. It started east in the hills around 11 P.M. and has jumped over 101.”

Of course, there was no answer. My siblings were asleep.

At 6:42 a.m. the Santa Rosa Press Democrat newspaper posted a map of the evacuation zone the Santa Rosa police had just established. Jim’s apartment was inside the red lines.

At 6:46 a.m. I sent Jim another Facebook message: “Jim are you okay? Can you call one of us? Or post on Facebook?”

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We never heard back.

I learned something that first horrible day of the wine country fires, fires that have now destroyed about 100,000 acres in Napa and Sonoma counties, killed 22 people in those counties alone, and destroyed 3,470 structures (if not more) and caused billions of dollars in damage: In the midst of such a catastrophe, it is nearly impossible to find helpful, accurate information. TV news stations, Twitter, and Facebook were flooded with images of destruction and warnings for people to evacuate that morning, but police and fire departments were so focused on saving lives they didn’t have time to search for individuals.

I started tweeting at 8:18 a.m. “Does anyone know who to call to see if my brother is safe? His home was part of evacuation for #Tubbsfire #santarosafire He isn’t answering.” I followed that up with tweets to journalists who were reporting from near where Jim lived, tweets to police and the sheriff asking what to do, where to turn, and tweets to city officials asking how I could find out the names of people in shelters. I didn’t get any answers, which is not surprising because at one point 1,174 people were reported missing. (Now 174 remain unaccounted for.)

I called the missing persons line set up by the sheriff’s department. I called the one hospital in Santa Rosa that hadn’t been evacuated. I called every shelter I could find. Mostly the phone kept ringing, and the one shelter where a person answered said there were 700 people there and no list of names. We called Jim’s cellphone and landline repeatedly.

We had one glimmer of hope that day. The company that owned Jim’s apartment complex told my brother Steven that everyone had been safely evacuated around 3 a.m. before the 190-unit complex mostly burned to the ground. But as hours passed and we still hadn’t heard from Jim—and as the Sonoma County sheriff’s department reported casualties—we all grew increasingly worried. So the family turned to Facebook and posted Jim’s photo and a note that he was missing. Within a few hours, my post had been shared 595 times. People from around the world expressed concern and sent their love and hopes for Jim.

As I went to bed that night, two things raced through my mind. I berated myself for not being a better sister, for not having realized that we should have set Jim up with a buddy system for emergencies, for not having responded to the last Facebook message he had sent me at 8 p.m. I also kept imagining the worst. Jim didn’t drive. He didn’t have car. So how did he evacuate? Did he ride his bike into the flames? Did he trip and fall and was now lying injured somewhere? Was he dead? The rest of the family was starting to fear for his life, too, as the hours passed. We couldn’t explain away his silence on downed cell towers. “Okay. I’m really worried,” his sister, Kate, wrote on a Facebook message group we had set up for the family. “How can it be that the guy who calls us for the littlest thing hasn’t been able to contact a single one of us? It does not make any sense to me.”

Jim didn’t drive. He didn’t have car. So how did he evacuate? Did he ride his bike into the flames? Did he trip and fall and was now lying injured somewhere? Was he dead?

Our break came Tuesday morning more than 24 hours after Jim went missing. My sister-in-law called the Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital back and was told a James Conley had been at the hospital but he had been released. It took another hour for someone from the emergency room to determine that Jim had been transported to the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose with severe burns.

I rushed down there. The hospital is about 50 miles from Berkeley. Never have I cursed Silicon Valley traffic so loudly. Never have I been as relieved as when I saw Jim in his hospital bed, still alive.

For the past week, my view of the fires that have ravaged California has narrowed to a single hospital room filled with beeping equipment and the calm and competent voices of doctors and nurses. While the world was looking at images of burned out wineries, whole neighborhoods destroyed, and somber pronouncements about the increasing number of dead, I was looking at Jim.

For the first few days in the hospital, Jim was intubated and the breathing tube in his throat made it impossible for him to talk. His left arm and leg and right hand had been badly burned and would require surgery and grafts. The heat had blistered his face, but the doctors said it should heal on its own with little to no scarring. His lungs seem to be OK.

My stepbrother is one of four patients from the fires in the burn unit; others were transported to hospitals at UC Davis and St. Francis Medical Center in San Francisco. Some were sent to Los Angeles.

Jim faces a long recovery from his wounds. He is homeless and is mourning the loss of everything that gave him comfort, including his old photos and memorabilia. He probably will never be able to move back to Santa Rosa. That city, like most of the Bay Area, was facing a housing shortage before the fire destroyed thousands of homes. All those people will now be looking for places to stay. And the chances of Jim finding a place at his old rent of $900? Nil.

While those who lost family members and homes in the fires are the most affected, a pall has settled over the Bay Area, one almost as tangible as the cap of polluted air that made breathing hard for a few days and seeing any distance almost impossible.

These enormous fires have touched almost everyone. The fires come on top of a long list of calamities as well: Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, the two earthquakes in Mexico, and of course, in the liberal Bay Area, the election of Donald Trump. (Who, by the way, as of yet has not sent out a single tweet of condolence about the fires.) Adding to the gloom is the realization that catastrophic fires in California are no longer occasional occurrences. Experts report that the severity and frequency of wildfires in the West has increased alarmingly in recent years. They also warn that climate change means the situation will only get worse.

It turns out that a neighbor saved Jim’s life.

It turns out that a neighbor saved Jim’s life. Shouts and the smell of smoke woke him up around 1 or 1:30 a.m. Even though the managers of the apartment complex had reassured us that they had alerted the residents to the fire, no one knocked on Jim’s door and told him to leave. If someone had, he would have obeyed. Instead, Jim, who doesn’t react well in a crisis, decided to defend his apartment. He picked up a garden hose and started spraying his roof.

That’s where Charlene Sheridan found him. She lived a few apartments away from Jim. She didn’t get an evacuation notice either. She was asleep when the apartment next to hers exploded. That jolted her from bed. She scrambled out the door and into her car. As she was speeding away she saw Jim standing in his pajamas in the parking lot. He was completely black, covered in soot from his face to his flip-flops. He was stunned, not moving. “Jim, get into the car,” she called. Jim just stood there. Charlene yelled a second time. This time Jim dropped the hose. He got in the car and automatically buckled his seatbelt. Charlene sped off, down a road that was surrounded by burning buildings. She took Jim to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital. He was so stunned he didn’t remember any of the phone numbers of his family, so Charlene left her number as next of kin. The doctors immediately put a tube down Jim’s throat (a common treatment for burn victims) so he could not communicate any further. That’s why no one contacted us.

In our family, we have started calling Charlene “our hero.”

It’s been a week since the fires started. They are still not out. More than 100,000 people were evacuated and most have not been allowed to return to their homes, although that should change in the coming days. Many don’t have homes to which to return. I can relate to their agony since I, too, lost a home in a fire. Several wineries were completely destroyed or severely hurt and nobody’s sure how long it will take for the vineyards to come back. But, as they say, possessions and wine can be replaced. The lives that were lost cannot.

It will take a long time, but California will rebuild. It always does. And it will burn again. It always does.