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Kincade fire makes for unforgettable wedding photo

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It was to be the wedding Katie Ferland dreamed of for more than a year — set to the backdrop of mountains and vineyards on a picture perfect autumn day in the California Wine Country.

And strangely, in its unexpected way, it was — although the picture that would best capture the day was not the expected portrait of a happy couple sharing a first kiss in the Valley of the Moon.

Instead, the impeccably dressed newlyweds standing in a vineyard looking stoically into the lens like an iteration of Grant Wood’s American Gothic painting, but without the pitchfork, and wearing face masks, became the defining photo. And it wasn’t just for the young couple’s memory album.

Wedding photographer Karna Roa pulled out the shot from hundreds and hundreds she snapped that Saturday while smoke from the raging Kincade fire to the north hung over the nuptials of Katie and Curtis Ferland at Kenwood’s Chateau St. Jean Winery.

On Sunday, a day after the wedding, Roa, who lives in Castro Valley but grew up in Sebastopol, was feeling physically and emotionally spent.

Her parents in Sebastopol were being evacuated, and she had lost power at her own home, forcing her to find a friend who still had electricity so she could download the irreplaceable pictures on a hard drive.

Impulsively, she posted to social media the face mask shot, snapped just after the ceremony. She wrote this understated description, figuring the photo spoke for itself: “Beautiful wedding at Chateau St Jean yesterday. This lovely couple flew from Chicago for their gorgeous destination in the wine country.”

The irony of the blonde bride in her elegantly fitted strapless Berta gown with her supposed-to-be radiant face covered by a mask, was not lost on anyone who saw it. People began to share. And share. And when Roa added the hashtag #KincadeFire, the photo began flying around the Internet. By Monday, Roa and the Ferlands were being interviewed by most of the major television networks and the BBC.

Roa was taken by surprise and feeling shaken by attention she never anticipated.

“It’s my responsibility to take care of those images, and I found a friend who had power,” she said. “I went over to her house and sat down and while I was waiting for the photos to copy I thought, ‘Why don’t I find that one photo that encapsulates the duress people were under?’ The out-of-towners who were there in the middle of this. The air quality was terrible, and the sun was red. And that was what really was happening.”

Ferland, a 32-year-old medical care social worker from Chicago, began planning her wedding a year ago. But she had really been fantasizing about the Wine Country ever since she visited in 2017 for her 30th birthday, just a week before the firestorms broke out. They had luckily just missed the terror and devastation that ripped through the upper Sonoma Valley from the Nun’s Fire, burning homes and at one point, bearing down on Chateau St. Jean.

Being from the Midwest, she and Curtis, who is in sales, were worried more about rain than fire, and California seemed like a good bet for an outdoor destination wedding in October.

As for fire, she said, “I’d joke and try to brush off worries figuring hopefully it won’t happen. And it’s exactly what happened.”

She didn’t waste a minute booking their venue at Chateau St. Jean. With its century-old architecture, formal gardens inspired by the south of France and vineyards flanked by the Mayacamas mountains, it’s a favorite high-end wedding venue for Wine Country weddings. The bridal website and magazine The Knot staged their live-streamed “Dream Wedding” giveaway at Chateau St. Jean in 2015. But the Nun’s Fire had also come perilously close, causing some minor cosmetic damage to the winery in 2017.

“We got engaged on Oct. 26, 2018. The following week, I had known in my heart I wanted it to be at Chateau St. Jean. I had the venue booked 10 days after I got engaged,” Ferland said from a hotel near San Francisco International Airport, where the couple took refuge after a frightening wedding night spent in the dark at the The Kenwood Inn and Spa.

Ferland said she kept her cool most of the week, even as guests began arriving and had to relocate to a hotel in Santa Rosa after their long-booked Airbnb in Sonoma Valley lost power.

“We woke up Thursday morning with news the fire had started, and that was when we started getting a little anxious. But we were still planning to move forward and pray for the best,” she said.

But at the rehearsal, when she was told that most of their outdoor wedding would have to be moved inside the winery because of the poor air quality, she began to get emotional.

“I was heartbroken. Everything I had planned for an entire year was going to change. It was not what I had envisioned. I had a crying meltdown.”

But her mother and sister talked her down and reminded her of the real joy of a wedding — pledging to share a life with someone you love.

“I got my tears out on Friday,” Ferland said. “But on Saturday I thought, this is my wedding day and I’m marrying the man I want to spend my future with, and I have so much to be happy for. My friends and family are here and I’m going to have as much fun as I can for the situation we were given.”

Hearing that power may be shut off by noon in Kenwood, the wedding party scurried to get hair and makeup done first thing.

And yet, the late afternoon, she said, was beautiful. The winds had yet to kick in. The brief ceremony at 4:30 p.m. on the lawn was still held outside followed by a short cocktail hour in the courtyard.

Their wedding planner Sara Sugrue, who was herself was evacuated, thought to provide masks for wedding guests, although only one person wore one.

“It’s the wedding favor no one wants,” Roa said wryly. But the filtered sun was strangely and eerily magical.

“The sun was so bright and orange. We knew it was because of the smoke. But it overall was beautiful,” Ferland said.

It was also Sugrue of Orchard Avenue Events, who has a love for gothic arts, who suggested taking a photo with face masks for the memory.

The newlyweds at first hesitated but then decided to roll with it.

“She said, ‘When you guys are ready to laugh again and realize you don’t have to stress any more ... it will be a cool thing to look back on,’ ” Ferland said she was told.

Roa said the guests seemed enchanted by the ochre sunset the color of harvest and the golden leaves of the vineyard.

“I heard the guests say the sky looks so beautiful,” Roa said. “Look at that glow, like you’re in Hawaii. But the vendors are looking at each other sideways thinking, ‘This is sort of apocalyptic. This is not the tropics.’ ”

Roa snapped the family and wedding party portraits as quickly as she could, she said, capturing the classic harvest vineyard setting that makes autumn, tinged with vivid yellows, oranges and reds, one of the most sought-after times of year in the Napa/Sonoma wine country.

But with wind and fire threatening to become the new normal in California, it also means an autumn wedding in Sonoma is increasingly subject to last minute logistical scrambles that turn wedding vendors into superheroes to keep it all together.

Roa said throughout the evening she was stressed, torn between her responsibility as a photographer to make the best pictures possible for Katie and Curtis and concern for her parents, Harold and Linda Roa, who were on evacuation watch.

She kept running outside for better cell phone service to check with her mom.

“Almost every vendor involved in this wedding was being actively evacuated hours before showing up for work. I was out of power. All of us were on edge. It took an entire village giving all we had,” she added, “to put on a really strong smile to get through it all because there was so much tragedy going on in the background.”

Roa, who has a 5-year-old daughter, Zoe, is one of the more sought-after wedding photographers in the Bay Area and is president of the Professional Photographers of the Wine Country.

For all the undercurrents of stress, the wedding couple remained cocooned in the happiness of their day. The sit-down dinner for 87, catered by Elaine Bell, was served inside in the barrel room, equipped with a good filtration system and back-up generators. The space provided a romantic Wine Country ambiance even without the vines.

The bride wasn’t complaining, even when the lights flickered out, before the generator kicked in, as everyone danced.

“The music was still playing. We were still able to have so much fun. My guests were having a great time.”

They spent a nervous and sleepless wedding night with the wind howling outside at The Kenwood Inn and Spa, which had lost power. The Inn is offering the couple a free night with a romantic couple’s massages in their new spa for a return visit in better weather.

There was another blow when the bride’s father’s rental car was broken into in San Francisco, and expensive electronics and other items were stolen.

The newlyweds had planned to spend their honeymoon in the Napa Valley but canceled and instead spent several days in San Francisco before flying back to Chicago on Wednesday. Still, the newlyweds were focusing on the positive.

“Through all the craziness, I got to wear my dream dress and I still had my dream wedding,” Katie Ferland said.

As for that unconventional wedding photo, seen round the world, she has plans.

“We probably going to frame it. It’s going to be on our thank-you notes for our wedding, and it probably will be the picture that is on our Christmas cards. It’s something our family and friends will never forget.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5204.

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