US: Family loses all to California fire: 'We're going to start again'

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Sarah Ashton, left, and her dad Stephen Ashton, take a look at their family home and vineyard for the first time after the Nuns fire destroyed the property in Glen Ellen, Calif. © Greg Barnette, Record Searchlight, via USA TODAY NETWORK Sarah Ashton, left, and her dad Stephen Ashton, take a look at their family home and vineyard for the first time after the Nuns fire destroyed the property in Glen Ellen, Calif.

GLEN ELLEN, Calif. — Only remnants of the life the Ashton family spent 50 years building remained.

The home, a pile of warped glass and charred nails. Stephen Ashton’s studio, built with his bare hands, ashes. The vineyard Ashton and his wife planned to give to their children, a skeleton of what used to be glorious grape vines of old vine pinot noir and syrah.

The Ashton Vineyard built on the property they owned since 1968, a memory.

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Their home was one of over 5,700 buildings that were destroyed by the merciless Northern California wildfires. The fires that sparked Oct. 8 continued to whip through neighborhoods, destroying everything in their path — including lives.

On Sunday, Stephen and his two daughters visited home for the first time since the Nuns Fire raged through the area. Friends braced the family for what they had lost, but reality set in as Ashton and daughters Sarah and Tara walked up the winding driveway to what once was their home on Henno Road.

Nothing remained besides a chimney and warped remnants of the house that had hosted family gatherings and served as headquarters for Ashton’s yearly film festival — the same home where Ashton's three daughters were born.

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“I feel so much lighter!” Ashton bellowed, trying to make the crowd chuckle as he stood in the rubble of his studio. “Hallelujah!”

Broken bits of a past life were strewn across the landscape. Some pieces were recognizable — like an antique brass knob from a door in the studio or shards of melted glass that were once wine bottles carefully stored in a temperature-controlled room.

But, most pieces were just traces of what they used to be.

The family left Sunday after the fire jumped Highway 12 and the gusting winds showed no sign of breaking. They didn’t grab much — “Just the clothes on our backs and a few hard drives,” Ashton said, adding that the last thing he grabbed was his camera.

The hard drives he took only held a portion of his life’s work of filmmaking and photography — the rest burned to ashes. The 31 years of archives from Ashton’s Wine Country Film Festival — a yearly showcase of international and independent films — were gone. The films Ashton filmed and produced through his company Phoenix Productions were disintegrated.

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“When I named Phoenix in 1970, I never thought I’d have to live up to the truth of that name,” he said.

As the flames started to rage towards the vineyard Monday morning, Ashton's friend and heroic neighbor Robert Rex made the decision to stay behind and try to hose the home down in the hopes of saving it Monday morning, but, “It was too late,” he said.

Ashton’s next door neighbors were almost untouched by the fire’s harsh grasp.

“This is where my parents built their lives,” Tara said. “Their soul was here in a very, very creative way. …It’s not about the structures; it’s about what was created here.”

Ashton and his wife, Justine, bought the land in their early 20s even after “everybody said it was impractical,” he said.

“We decided to do it, and we did it damn well. We were just following a dream.”

The sustainable vineyard was hand-planted in 1970. Each vine was carefully tended to, their grapes harvested and fermented into rich, full-bodied wines. The family has a “few thousand cases” left of the syrah and pinot noir labels, which is “enough to get (them) through.”

“Pop, do you think the roots are still strong?” Tara asked hugging her dad as they stood on the driveway overlooking the charred black vineyard.

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“We’ll have to see,” he said. “We’ll have to see.”

Ashton is already looking hopefully toward the future. Instead of focusing on the decades of mementos lost, he’s talking about rebuilding — about using the flames as a chance to rise above, just like a phoenix.

“We’re going to keep our wine business going,” he said sifting through the rubble. “We’re going to start again. We’ll rebuild the house. We’ll rebuild the studio — that’s for sure.

“Whatever we build will now be for the next generations. It’ll be nice — I promise you that.”

The fire didn’t show any forgiveness to the family’s belongings, passions and livelihood, but Ashton stayed positive. Even though everything was lost, their family — including Clementine the orange ranch cat found hiding in burned brush — were alive.

“Family is everything,” he said wrapping both daughters in his arms. “Especially when you have nothing else.”

To donate to the Ashton family click here.

Follow Sarah Litz on Twitter: @SarahMLitz

 

California wildfires survivors face housing crisis .
<p>Laurie Martinez has slept in a tent every night since a fire ripped through her neighborhood in Santa Rosa, California.</p>She walked several blocks to a local center on Wednesday to find out what help is available and began the process of piecing her life back together.

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