Category Archives: Autobiographical Writing

          Miracle at Soda Canyon part 1

Mary Jane Stevens joins Building a Better Story with Miracle at Soda Canyon, A Tale About One of the Worst Fires In California History. Mary Jane, a Napa resident for over 30 years, lives part time in Truckee. A retired business owner, she has begun to write about her life, her two adult children, one grandchild and husband Bob. She feels blessed in her marriage, which recently has survived more than the usual troubles of modern life. Please enjoy Mary Jane’s harrowing tale of fire and miracles.


Late Sunday evening, October 8, my husband Bob, called me at our home in Truckee to say that there were helicopters with bright lights hovering low outside our house in Napa; over loud speakers they were saying, “Fire! Evacuate! Evacuate Immediately!” 

Bob asked what he should take and I suggested a few necessities, cash, the insurance policy file, our laptop computers and my good jewelry, all which were in easy to reach places. I said, “Get out of there fast and call me when you get down the hill.”  He wanted to take all the paperwork out of the office but I told him to leave it, his life was the most important thing. I told him we’d made it through a fire in 2011 when the house was gutted, and we could do it again.


About twenty minutes later I saw Bob’s name on my cell phone screen. I was relieved—a little prematurely it turned out. He was calling to say he couldn’t get down the hill—the road was blocked.  He and about twenty-five people, including neighbors and some vineyard workers who’d been picking in the dead of night, were trapped by the fire.  They were at the top of Soda Canyon Road near Atlas Peak Road seven miles from Silverado Trail, close to where the fire may have started.  No way out!


And no one knew they were stranded.

The helicopters had moved on to warn others.  The group decided to move to a clear area at Stagecoach Vineyards which happened to be near vineyard manager Esteban’s home where they still had cell service.  


I sent my kids a text then called them to let  them know what was going on.  Casey and Kelly deserved to know their dad was in serious danger. They would never have forgiven me if something happened to him, and I hadn’t warned them.


Kelly, as it turned out, had her phone turned off for the night, so she did not get my messages until the following morning. 


Casey, who is a Los Angeles City Firefighter, immediately hung up and called Bob to get the GPS coordinates from his cell phone. With those coordinates he called someone he works with at the department’s command center. Casey told his contact about the people stranded near a fast moving fire in Napa, gave him the coordinates and asked him to contact the Cal Fire Commander in Napa with the information to rescue his dad and the others. 

 Whenever Casey was not out on calls we talked on the phone during the night.  Both of us feared the worst, but neither said what we were really thinking.  Friends from Napa had told us the fire was huge, and the winds the strongest anyone had seen in recent memory.  Bob told us, in our last conversation, the fire was raging right toward him. It was excruciating not having more information.



Atlas Fire    Napa Valley Register

Earlier my friend, Carolyn, called me from the deck of her home in west Napa as soon as she saw the fire across the valley.  She was supposed to join me, along with several of our friends, at my home in Truckee the following day and knew Bob was home alone. A childhood friend, she’s has known Bob all his life. She was watching the fire scream across the mountain at an unbelievable pace and worried about him.  She stayed on the phone with me, off and on, most of the night giving me much needed emotional support.  Many of my Napa friends texted me throughout the night with words of encouragement and prayers for Bob’s safety.

When we talked, I told Casey how quickly Carolyn could see fire spreading and it wasn’t looking good for Bob’s evacuation. Unknown-4

To be continued…


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Filed under Autobiographical Writing, Fire Season, Students

Battle Lines

Author Nathaniel “Bob” Winters observes details of the battle to put out October’s fires.


Battle Lines

by Nathaniel R. (Bob) Winters

10/16/17   Yesterday my wife and I drove up the Napa Valley headed back to St Helena after a five- day evacuation from smoke and fire. On arriving at Oakville, we discovered the fire was burning over the ridge-tops and raging down the mountains towards our home.


Through our windshield, we could see two choppers  filling up water into huge buckets then dumping it onto the flames. Two large fixed wing aircraft were also attacking with retardant.


The battle goes on. The winds have calmed down and the “powers that be” believe we are safe. I hope they are right.

This morning I masked up and took Rue for a walk, watching the two choppers continue the fight. I flashed back to other another battle line in Nam.


But luckier than in Nam,  the weather men are forecasting rain Thursday, the first winter wet-down after our usual summer drought.

It  appears some prayers are about to be answered. “They” say there are no atheists in foxholes…. This “not quite kosher” guy is not so sure about prayer, but it couldn’t hurt!


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Filed under Autobiographical Writing, Fire Season, Students

Green Grass, Yellow Mustard


Thank you


Now and again I like to showcase the wonderful writings of my Upper Napa Valley writing workshop attendees. The following poem is by Theresa Cordova Ortez, a member of our Napa Valley College class, Autobiographical Writing, held at Rianda House, St. Helena’s Senior Center. Theresa writes Flash Memoir, scenes of her life and family. This is her first poem and it captures the beauty I’m blessed to experience every  day as I drive to work. I hope Theresa’s poem inspires you to visit the Napa Valley this spring.

The Cycle

Blue skies

Sunny days

Yellow mustard swaying in the fields

Grassy green hills

Beautiful grape vines stripped of their fruit

Standing tall in tidy rows, waiting for their time

When once again they will bear grapes

The color of deep purple and gold

the color of sun

This world-renowned jewel that sparkles like a diamond

This beautiful Napa Valley, which we are so fortunate to have

To visit, to work, and for me

To call home


Thanks Abe K. via Flickr


Filed under Autobiographical Writing, Poetry, Students

Tell It Like It Was



Why write it? Why illuminate your innermost self and risk potential pain of ridicule or criticism? You ask yourself this, over and over, even as you name your secret places, confess your transgressions, light up your dark desires.


Thanks Friends of the Royal Botanic Gardens

Perhaps you reveal your wild and strange garden because of that gnawing, burrowing inner gopher. You know the one—nibbling the tendrils of your memories and digging through your synapses in his blind foraging. You know the dark feeding will stop in the light of your pen.


 At first you write to expose the bully, the crazy parent, the mean sister, the pain-giver. That may be your catalyst, but will revealing trespasses against you trap the hungry rodents like a hunting cat, pouncing on those unseeing beasts, dragging them from the dark and laying them at your feet?

In the end the revelation is you.

images-5        Writing your memoirs? Creating a family legacy?

                      Looking to publish your story?

Join the Rianda House memoir writers:A forum for craft, critique and positive encouragement.


This group welcomes beginning memoir writers as well as more experienced writers who wish to explore their lives through the written word, both creative non-fiction (memoir, personal narrative, essay, autobiography) and poetry. Writing craft is discussed in the group and writing topics are suggested. All participants are encouraged to share their work in class.

Mondays 3:00-5:00 at Rianda House 1475 Main St. St. Helena Free

#70755 (Pre-registration at Rianda House) Feb 6-May 22 (no class 4/10)




Filed under Autobiographical Writing, Classes, Memoir, revision