The night Santa Rosa burned

My wife woke me at 3:30am and I remember being pretty annoyed.  She was talking about a fire, to which my instant response would have been “go back to sleep” except when she told me that the fire had “jumped the highway at Hopper” and “Fountain Grove was on fire”.

Hopper Avenue is only a few miles north of my house, on the west side of Highway 101 which exits onto Hopper right next to a gas station joined with a McDonalds’, an Applebee’s, a Starbucks and a few “cheap” (for the wine country) motels.  Kmart was a block south from there.

It slowly sank in as a sat up.  Jumped the highway.  For a fire to jump a six-lane highway with a divider was, in my mind, a pretty unusual thing.  In fact, it was exactly the kind of thing that made me decide to leave immediately with my family.  My wife went outside and smelled the thick smoke.  We threw our three-year-old twins, the dogs, and ourselves into the car and left.  I called my mother and told her to turn on the TV right away. I didn’t even take a jacket.  I have spent a lot of time in nature, and for that reason my habit of reacting with limited information when dealing with things like this was almost instinctive.  I had been in danger before.  This sounded like danger.

I had been sitting peacefully on the couch the night before, enjoying the warm wind coming through the window.  I always liked the wind.  The native Americans believe that the wind announces the arrival of spirits.  I had no clue what was happening.

We immediately avoided highway 101 because I had no knowledge of the extent of the fire and how large the evacuation was.  I assumed that there was one.  If it was as large as it could be, the highway would be jammed, and if the fire was crossing the escape route, the implications seemed clear.

We drove down Stoney Point Road, a road about a mile east of Highway 101 that ran parallel to it.

“Vinnie and Christie have left, they think their house is already gone.”  Their house was at the bottom of Fountain Grove on the east side of the mountain that Fountain Grove sat on, in an area called Rincon Valley.  “They are going to the parking lot at the Casino.”  Our other friends who also lived in Rincon Valley indicated they were leaving and coming to our house.  They seemed mystified that we were leaving.  “We aren’t going to be there” my wife told them.  It was only a few minutes later that we drove past the Casino to see the whole mountain on the east side of the Freeway past the Casino on fire.  The sensation of fear went across my back and up my neck.  We kept driving.  I didn’t even know about that fire.  The only thing we knew is that the fire had gone from Napa to Santa Rosa in a few hours.  This was a very fast moving fire.

We spent the morning in San Rafael in a parking lot, unable to get a room.  We stared at Facebook hour after hour, as it was our main conduit for information.  I watched terrifying videos from a friend named John Hendrickson driving past burning houses, surrounded on all sides, jammed in traffic.  The whole subdivision he lived in was burned down hours before I woke up.  Our friends stayed at the Costco parking lot, only to later be unable to go south or north.

We bought clothes at Kohl’s.  They wouldn’t let us use our discount, despite our sob-story.  Nobody would take our dogs without vaccination paperwork.  Everyone said no, without exception.  I can’t say there was a real sense of community in that experience.  Whatever.  My house wasn’t on fire yet.

Later on, one of the dogs jumped into the disgusting creek behind an industrial area in San Rafael where we were hanging out, letting them run around.  An employee at Petco was merciful and washed him without the vaccination paperwork.  I bought a large crate and put the dogs in it.

That night we stayed at Walnut Creek at a Holiday Inn Express.  The smoke filled the air.  One person I knew left his house ten minutes before it burned.  He sent me a video of Applebee’s bursting into flames as he fled.  The offers for us to have a place to stay literally poured in.  I heard nothing from my mom or my sisters, who were over in the City of Napa.  While Santa Rosa got the worst of it, Napa was no picnic by any stretch.  A house on Atlas peak where I spent much time as a teen was gone.

The next day we had to go back home because we had no place to take the dogs.  We arrived home in the thick smoke the next day and I went to work downtown.  I’m not a brave person, but I also had responsibilities to handle and that is something I take seriously.  My wife left with the children and stayed with my sister in Dublin while I stayed at the house.  We had no child care and I did not want the twins in town.  The kids come first.  There are people who died who should have panicked.

By some twist of fate, we have a vacation planned and we were on an airplane that very Friday.  The twins were safe.  My house never burned.  I still do not know what stopped the fire from moving through Santa Rosa.  I suspect the wind died down, and that is the only reason why more of Santa Rosa didn’t burn.

I came home to blue skies and drove past the burned out wreckage along the highway.  Friends and people I knew slowly trying to put the pieces of their lives back together, sorting through the rubble, living in their cars.  Watching all of this was incredibly moving and at once frightening.  I felt shame for having fled, but tempered that with the reality that I had no role to play, other than to protect the twins.

As the time passes and mourning and healing continues, we will return to who we are.  The guy on his cell phone with “Sonoma County Strong” in his rear window and the Humvee from the National Guard who each almost ran my mini-van with my twins in it off the highway will go on with their lives.  Ambulance-chasers from LA will parachute into town looking to make a buck.  I’ll continue offering Estate Planning and be donating 25% of the fee to the North Bay Fire Relief Fund.  We will wait for Donald Trump to say something.  He won’t.

And I will forget about that.

What I will remember is this single moment in time when we were all united.  When help was asked for, and was received.  More importantly, when help wasn’t asked for, and was received.