September 18, 2021, 15:54

California wildfires bring out hope of couples planning weddings in wine country

California wildfires bring out hope of couples planning weddings in wine country

Rick Grenis and Bonnie Frazier spent more than a year planning a wedding in northern California’s scenic Sonoma County that was to include a weekend of activities for their more than two dozen guests.

But the couple had to make a last-minute change in plans when their venue in Healdsburg was closed due to wildfires that were among the deadliest in California’s history raged across the state.

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“Our venue’s website said, ‘Closed until further notice,’” Grenis, told ABC News. “That is not what you want to see the week of your wedding.”

Courtesy William GrenisRick Grenis and Bonnie Frazier pose together at their Oct. 13, 2017, wedding in Novato, Calif.

Grenis, 29, and Frazier, 27, who both live in Oakland, California, got the news just 48 hours before the Oct. 13 date for their nuptials. But they took inspiration from their wedding planner, who was persevering after losing her family’s home to the fires this month in Santa Rosa, California.

Elijah Nouvelage/Getty ImagesFirefighters walk through the Fountaingrove neighborhood on Oct. 13, 2017 in Santa Rosa, Calif.

Wedding planner Brittany Hanson, her husband and their three children escaped their home with just the clothes on their backs.

Days later, Hanson, who said one of her five employees also lost her home in the fires, was back planning weddings for clients like Grenis and Frazier.

“We want to survive out of this,” Hanson, the owner of Run Away With Me, told ABC News. “We know we’re in a really bad situation, but we also know if we were removed from this and it was our wedding, we’d be devastated and stressed.”

Elijah Nouvelage/San Francisco Chronicle via PolarisThe remains of the Fountaingrove Inn Hotel are seen from the air in Santa Rosa, Calif. on Oct. 10, 2017.

“We love weddings,” Hanson added. “That’s what we do. We understand the importance of weddings.”

Following her lead, Grenis and Frazier went ahead with their marriage ceremony at a different location, near San Francisco.

‘We’re all here. We’re all surviving.’

The California wildfires have charred more than 217,000 acres of land, forced about 75,000 residents to evacuate and damaged or destroyed at least 5,700 homes and businesses, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

SLIDESHOW: PHOTOS: Wildfires rage through California wine country

“People removed from here think the whole thing went up in flames, but wine country is very large,” Hanson said. “There are still plenty of us here and a big part of our economy — hotels and restaurants and food tastings — comes from the wedding industry.”

In Napa County, 732 marriage ceremonies were held and 1,663 marriage licenses issued last fiscal year, Napa County Clerk John Tuteur told ABC News.

Weddings helped to generate $196 million in spending in the Napa Valley area in 2016, according to an economic report released in May by Visit Napa Valley.

Darius Anderson owns multiple restaurants and wedding sites in the Napa and Sonoma county areas. He said this year’s wildfires hit the region during its busiest month for marriage celebrations.

“The tragedy of the whole thing is October is traditionally our number one month for weddings,” said Anderson. “In this month, we’ve had 57 percent cancellations.”

Anderson’s properties survived the fires and he said the first priority for him and other local business owners has been to make sure their employees are safe and taken care of. Their next priority, he said, is to help rebuild the region and make sure people know its beauty remains.

“Long-term we have to let people know that we’re open for business and the natural beauty and historic value and what makes Napa-Sonoma so charming to people is still here,” he said. “We’re still focused on our customer base and making sure their experience here is the best they can possibly have.”

Many couples are going ahead with their weddings in the area.

Hanson said her company typically does 20 weddings in the month of October alone. So far, only two have been canceled and another two have changed their venues.

“We’re all here. We’re all surviving,” she said. “Everyone is here volunteering. For us to keep going is the best thing we can do right now.”

Hanson said people in the wedding industry are going the extra mile to help each other. Some vendors are offering to drive hours to new wedding locations, she said, and wedding planners like herself are helping each other find what they need both for their business and for the larger community.

“One wedding planner donated supplies for 100 kids to my school,” Hanson said. “I replied to thank her and she needed 70 volunteers to feed lunch and I said, ‘Done.'”

“We’re crisis managers,” she added. “That’s what we do for a living.”

‘Planned an entire new wedding in 48 hours’

Courtesy William GrenisRick Grenis and Bonnie Frazier pose after their Oct. 13, 2017, wedding in Novato, Calif.

When the wildfires forced the closure of Grenis and Frazier’s planned wedding venue, the groom’s brother, Billy Grenis, stepped up to help from across the country in New York City by putting out a call on social media.

The couple confirmed their new venue, a country club in Novato, just outside San Francisco, the night before the wedding.

Courtesy William GrenisThe Novato, Calif., wedding venue of Rick Grenis and Bonnie Frazier is shown here as wildfires burn close by, Oct. 13, 2017.

“We took a year or more to plan this and then we basically planned an entire new wedding in 48 hours,” Rick Grenis said. “It was something that we reminded ourselves throughout the week, that it’s not about the specific details that we had been planning but the fact that we’re getting married and that people are still coming to celebrate us.”

The smoke from the fires, however, had spread so far that Hanson brought masks for Frazier, Grenis and their guests to wear at the outdoor wedding to protect themselves from smoke.

Courtesy William GrenisRick Grenis, 29, and Bonnie Frazier, 27, pose as if kissing through face masks at their wedding in Novato, Calif., Oct. 13, 2017.

Courtesy William GrenisRick Grenis and Bonnie Frazier pose with their wedding guests in face masks at their Oct. 13, 2017 wedding in Novato, Calif.

The bride and groom cancelled their planned rentals of houses for nearly 30 out-of-state guests in Healdsburg so that the homes could be used instead to house evacuees.

They also asked their wedding guests to make donations to fire victims in lieu of wedding gifts. They are making their own donation to help those affected by the fires, and they hope to return one day to their planned wedding destination.

“We keep joking that for our 10-year anniversary we can go back and follow the itinerary that we had planned,” Frazier said. “We had a whole wine country weekend.”

‘It was just surreal.’

The fast-moving fires this month caught some wedding-goers by surprise.

Wendy Ross, of Lawrenceville, Georgia, was watching groomsmen give toasts at the Oct. 8 wedding of her son, Sam Ross, to Rachel Lieberstein in the Napa Valley area when wind began to pick up and the sky turned red.

“It was a wonderful wedding, everything went perfectly and then the wind started really picking up,” Ross told ABC News. “As it started getting dark you could notice a little bit of a glow.” Sam Ross and Rachel Lieberstein celebrated their marriage with a kiss before evacuating their wedding reception ahead of the Atlas fire on Oct. 8.

The ceremony and reception took place at a private home overlooking vineyards in the path of the Atlas fire, which struck Napa and Solano counties, and Wendy Ross said that as the DJ began playing music, “bright red flames” were shooting in the sky.

“I noticed [the flames] about 9:50 that evening and by 10:45, we were gone,” she said of the 120 guests who evacuated. “It was very, very frightening.” Sam Ross’s and Rachel Lieberstein’s wedding guests photograph the fast-moving Atlas fire before evacuating their wedding reception.

Sam Ross and Lieberstein, now on their honeymoon now in New Zealand, plan to help rebuild their beloved Napa community as soon as they return home.

“We expect to fully immerse ourselves in the rebuilding process when we return next weekend,” Lieberstein told ABC News by email. “We have a lot of friends and family in Napa who have already started brainstorming with us on how we can help our community directly.”

She added, “We want to help as quickly and efficiently as possible.”


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