My phone rang at 1:30 a.m. It was barely Monday. The woman said, “This is Kim, your next-door neighbor. I’m in Dallas and I can’t reach my husband. There are fires in your area.” I had smelled wood smoke three hours earlier when I left the Roxy in downtown Santa Rosa, which would be an inch or so south on this map. I was leaving “Blade Runner” by the side door and felt like I was emerging into another scene of the long movie because the wind was gusting insanely and particulate matter was ricocheting through the air — mostly leaves on this October night.
“Mark West Springs Road is on fire,” (blue line at top of map) “and they are evacuating our homes. I can’t find my husband.” I asked if she wanted me to knock on his door, so she held on while I went outside. The wind was gusting violently and our garbage cans had been knocked over but the street was quiet, his car wasn’t there, there was a light on in the house but no answer to the doorbell. (red X at lower left)
“There’s an evacuation order for our neighborhood — did you receive it?” Kim sounded anxious. Well, there was one for an adjacent neighborhood but our street was silent.
“Wait,” I said. “Geez, all the doors on the street just opened and everyone is coming out. There is a new alert. The evacuation zone has been expanded to include us.”
“Get out now,” Kim said. “Go to Finley Center now. Round Barn is on fire.” The historic old barn is on the other side of the freeway so I took a few moments to grab the Trust Documents and my passport, my computer and the backup drives with my client info. People were driving crazy on my short 2 a.m. trip. I got one of the last parking spaces and went inside to something that looked like registration day for first grade. Lots of dazed kids clinging to parents trying to hold it together. I promptly crossed the courtyard to the Senior wing which the parents apparently did not know about. Emergency personnel were streaming into the Senior wing, but no civilians.
I picked a corner near a power outlet and plugged in my phone. It dinged again, a text from Kim. “Fire has crossed Freeway. Hopper evacuated. K-Mart on fire.” Now, this isn’t supposed to happen. I believed:
- Forest fires don’t happen in cities. We have nice, polite, one-structure-at-a-time fires that are near fire hydrants.
- Fires don’t cross the Freeway. It’s, like, a zoning regulation.
I did not believe that this was going on in Coffey Park, just a short distance from my home.
The two green circles show the 101 Freeway that separates the rich on the right side, from the poor, on the left (sinister in Latin, gauche in French). The strong diagonal line at the left edge of the yellow hashmarks is the SMART train track. My house is on the “other side of the tracks.” That was lucky, because the tracks became the main firebreak that everyone thought the freeway would be. We were shocked when the flames leapt over.
The next morning I drove to the railroad tracks to see if my friend Joyce’s house was still there. There were no houses. It looked like Dresden. There were still flames visible in the insulators of the downed wires along the tracks, visible at top left.
We have three hospitals in the area and two were evacuated at the same time I was. They are both in or close to the yellow area you see above — one up by Mark West Springs, and Kaiser Hospital which is just east of the square “492” exit sign for the freeway. The mobile home park adjacent to it, “Journey’s End,” was incinerated.
So were all the homes in the Coffey Park area which is the piece of the fire stretching down toward my house. They stopped it about a mile from my house. They stopped it 11 houses from my friend Alice’s house. My friend Joyce was not so lucky. Her house is now about six inches high (see photo below), and they had to leave behind her husband’s car because he cannot drive. He had been released from the hospital just a few days earlier after an eight-hour operation on his heart. As they fled, their neighbor’s house was already in flames. They couldn’t get to Finley center because of the gridlock on Piner Rd.
The Senior wing filled up quickly and soon I heard a familiar voice. Carolyn and Rich Gibbons were there, in their pajamas, because they left their Brush Creek home promptly. Kim found her husband, a city worker, had been called in at midnight to cope with wind damage. Later, he said, “The winds on Sunday night were breaking off big tree limbs and blocking Fountaingrove Parkway. I couldn’t stand up, the wind had to be 60 mph.” (PG&E measured winds of 75 mph.) “From the top of Fountaingrove I saw the fire come down from Calistoga, then JUMP to Mark West Springs Road. It didn’t burn through — it was like a torch being lit. It was a terrible sight.”
This is a picture I took at daybreak, Monday Oct 9.
A couple of hours after I took this picture, I walked a mile through the thick smoke to bypass the police barriers and found my house standing but the electricity and gas off. I shuttled back and forth for a couple of days as the fires continued, but the high winds forecast for Wednesday night sent me to Jill’s in Petaluma. Thursday evening, the electricity was restored. On Saturday afternoon, PG&E turned on the gas and re-lit the pilot lights on my furnace and water heater. The fires are not out yet, but many of us are feeling more hopeful.
NYTimes article with charts and graphic showing how and why this fire got so big so fast. My friend Janice lives a few blocks closer to the edge of the fire — her condo is only a half-mile from where the fire was stopped. She moved here to be closer to her daughter and two grandchildren who lived in Coffey Park. Here is their house now.
Update – Nine Months Later
Today I finally had the guts to go see Rincon Ridge, a Fountaingrove community that suffered the same level of devastation as Coffey Park. In Coffey Park, work has commenced on rebuilding my friend Joyce’s home. As you can see on the map below, the Hanley fire of 1964 burned Fountaingrove but not Coffey Park. Fountaingrove also burned in The Forgotten Fire of 1870. Trader Joe’s is still not open, but they have announced work on it so hope is in the air.