Benziger family and wineries escape from California fires

For Ridgefield’s Benziger family, the fires that swept through northern California were more than a bit of TV news — the family has two wineries and many relatives in the area.

“It was horrible for a while, explosive,” said Jerry Benziger of Wilton Road East.

“Everybody’s safe, in regard to my immediate family,” Benziger told The Press in a Monday, Oct. 16, interview.

“Out of my six brothers and sisters, five live out there. One lost his house and the others worked every day, nightly, to save their houses. It was touch and go,” he said.

Benziger Family Winery and the family’s Imagery Winery are both in Glen Ellen, Calif., in Sonoma County, where fires had left more than 49,000 acres burned by Monday.

“In regard to the Benziger Family Winery, no damage to buildings or the estate,” he said.

“It was the winds. Wind blew in over the mountain and down the valley. … It grew to like 26,000 acres from Sunday night to Monday morning.”

Chris Benziger is the brother who lost his house, narrowly escaping with his two teenage sons, his wife, and her parents in the early morning hours Monday, Oct. 9.

“He happened to get all his family and his in-laws and animals out,” Jerry Benziger said. “He only had about 20 minutes to get out at about 2 o’clock Monday morning. There were 70-mph winds that spread the fire Sunday night.”

Chris Benziger gave a phone interview to NBC News on Tuesday, after returning to find his home destroyed by the fire the family had fled.

“We were so lucky to escape with our lives,” he told NBC. “Both sides of the street were on fire. It was like you see in the movies.”

Jerry, a Ridgefielder, described some of the harrowing experiences other family members went through in California.

“My nephew was right below the winery and grabbed a bulldozer from the winery and started cutting fire lines around his house and two neighbors’ houses at 2 in the morning, and saved the bottom edge of the properties.”

No fight

The fires were so rampant and threatening that for a time California’s department of forestry and fire protection, known as Cal Fire, didn’t even try to battle them, Jerry said.

“From what I understand, Cal Fire and the fire department were not even thinking of any kind of fire fighting and containment. They were just running around in front of the fire, to get people out of the way — it was all life safety at that point, and containment didn’t start until Wednesday or Thursday.”

Jerry said his family out there was lucky to have escaped with their lives and lucky again that most of their property was intact — the raging fire missed them.

“That’s basically the only way to say it,” he said, “luck.”