Devastating. Apocalyptic. Unprecedented.
Survivors of Monday’s North Bay firestorms used different words to describe the intensity of the wind-whipped, early-morning blazes that left much of Santa Rosa a smoking ruin, took at least 15 lives and left authorities looking for 150 missing people. By Tuesday, the multiple blazes in Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties were zero percent contained and more than 20,000 people had been forced to flee their homes after the worst natural disaster in Northern California’s recorded history.
As of Tuesday afternoon the fire was threatening the Oakmont Village retirement community and some 5,000 people were still in evacuation centers in Sonoma County—and nobody was being sent back home yet. PG&E reported that more than 100,000 people were still without power. Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano said his department is “working on damage assessments so we can put people back in their homes” during an afternoon press conference where he stressed safety and patience. By Tuesday the death toll across the region had risen to 15, nine in Sonoma County, and more than 50,000 acres were burned in the Tubbs and Atlas fires in the Santa Rosa area and Napa County, respectively.
Santa Rosa police and the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office have been on guard against looters and the city enacted a dusk-to-dawn curfew; the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office closed access to mandatory evacuation areas and Giordano reported that increased police presence had contributed to “very few calls and no looting.”
Santa Rosa was a shuttered ghost town as of Monday afternoon, except for a Chinese restaurant that was serving through the smoky day. It started to come to life again Tuesday, but school was out, the courts were closed and the SMART train wasn’t coming. Twenty employees of the local sheriff’s office lost their homes to the fire, Giordano says. One employee of San Jose Inside’s sister newspaper in Santa Rosa, the North Bay Bohemian, lost hers.
“This is a huge event. This is an enormous fire,” Giordano told reporters. He added that he expected that there “may be a couple more” fatalities in the county.
The estimated number of homes, businesses or other buildings destroyed by the multiple fires was at least 2,000. The Tubbs fire, says Cal Fire spokeswoman Heather Williams, has claimed 571 buildings, 550 residential and 21 commercial. “There are 16,000-plus structures that are [still] being threatened,” she said. That fire started along the Sonoma-Napa County border Sunday night in Calistoga. Its cause is still under investigation, but the firestorm was assisted by very low humidity (11 percent) and very high wind gusts. The wind had died down Monday, but on Tuesday forecasters warned that offshore winds were picking up again and would blow 25 to 30 miles an hour from the northeast.
— siliconvalleycf.org (@siliconvalleycf) October 11, 2017
The damage is numbing in its scope and cruelly democratic in its reach: Rich and poor alike have lost everything to Tubbs. Local institutions are no longer: Santa Rosa’s Hilton Sonoma Wine Country Hotel and historic Round Barn in Fountaingrove are both gone. Classrooms and the east end of Luther Burbank Center for the Performing Arts are no more. Kaiser and Sutter hospitals each evacuated before approaching flames.
Santa Rosa’s Coffey Lane neighborhood north of Piner Road, lit by embers that jumped Highway 101, is a site of utter devastation. Block after block of middle-class homes surrounding Coffey Park were reduced to smoldering ash.
Long after firefighters and Sonoma County sheriff deputies worked through the early morning hours to save as many lives as possible, the working-class neighborhood once adorned with Halloween decorations resembled a burned-out city under military siege.
The National Guard was called in to assist, Giordano says, after Gov. Jerry Brown’s state of emergency declaration Tuesday.
Giordano noted that the county has fielded 240 missing persons reports, and the office has “located 57 people safely.” He encouraged families to contact the county Emergency Operations Center if they have a missing loved one and attributed much of the concern to the chaos of the moment, with panicked residents leaving their homes and heading to one of 25 evacuation centers—often without a cellphone or a charger.
“A lot of it is just confusion,” he said. “I’m glad we can chip away at that number.”
All over the region, gas mains roared with perilous open flames, and broken water pipes feebly spewed water onto scorched earth as the acrid smoke of incinerated beds, couches, cars and bicycles drifted through the air. Residents stood before chimneys that looked like gravestones in a smoldering cemetery, weeping and taking photos with their phones.
Seaneen DeLong, 57, walked south on Coffey Lane away from the fire with her yowling cat, Fritz, in a travel carrier.
“It was the best neighborhood in the world,” she said. “Now it’s a charred ruin. It looks like a nuclear wasteland.”
DeLong was awakened by the fierce winds that sent embers from the Tubbs fire to the east into her neighborhood and was able to get out with her cat and little else.
Scott Murray, 60, found the house he rents out to tenants—a place he raised his children—burned to the ground. So was everything around it. The absence of familiar visual reference points left him disoriented.
“It looks like Dresden,” Murray said.
His wife’s house was also gone, and he called to give her the news. Then he trudged across Coffey Park , where it appeared a car had exploded and landed upside down, to check on his home. He expected the worst but suddenly the scene of destruction stopped. Like stepping from black-and-white into color, the destruction stopped. His home, just a few houses away from piles of ash and twisted metal, was untouched.
“Oh my God,” Murray said, overcome with emotion. “Oh my God. How was my house spared?”
Adding to the horrors of Monday night was the fate of the 200 patients who had to be evacuated from Kaiser Permanente and Sutter hospitals. Shawna Marzett, a patient-care technician at the hospital, said Kaiser was admitting ambulances bearing fire victims until early Monday morning, until the fire bore down on them from the hillsides above. Then it was time to evacuate.
“Looking through those big glass windows you could feel the heat,” she said. “We had doctors and nurses watching their homes burn while they were helping.”
Patients from Kaiser and Sutter were bused to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital and neighboring facilities. A hospital spokeswoman reported that about 170 patients had come through with fire-related injuries by Tuesday, far lower than anticipated. Most were treated for minor burns or smoke inhalation, though a dozen patients had more significant injuries.
Williams at Cal Fire says firefighters have “worked diligently at the southern end of the fires,” to build defenses to prepare for the windy prediction.
Vice President Mike Pence was in Sacramento on a previously scheduled trip and he gave a news conference Tuesday focused on the fire and the federal response. President Donald Trump had just approved a disaster declaration, which means funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency are on the way. Pence spoke for many when he highlighted the work of first responders.
“Cal Fire is inspiring the nation, and we stand with them with great admiration and appreciation,” the vice president said.
He assured the North Bay that “more assets are on the way.”
Below is a photo gallery of the North Bay Fire aftermath. All pictures were taken by Dawn Heumann and Stett Holbrook.