Two northwest Santa Rosa homes were left damaged but still standing Wednesday despite what could have been a catastrophic fire fueled by an explosion and multiple propane tanks stored between the closely built houses near Coffey Park.
For the owners of two Norwich terriers named Lulu and Stella, it may have been enough that all four family members and their adored dogs survived the 9:18 a.m. blaze, especially given a terrifying period of about 45 minutes in which no one knew if 6-year-old Lulu had escaped the flames.
Joe and Laurie Albano, and their adult sons Craig, 21, and Eric, 18, lost the garage of their Tuliptree Road home as well as an SUV and everything else inside.
But a loud cheer went up from the substantial crowd of neighbors and onlookers when Joe Albano, called home from work, came from behind the house with his arms full of the quaking terrier.
"That was very emotional," he said an hour later, his voice still shaking as he gestured toward the charred and smoking contents of the garage. "To think she was buried in the rubble in there. ... Once I saw the family was OK, I just thought, 'The dogs.'"
An elderly cat got away safely, as well, family members said.
The Santa Rosa Fire Department said the fire was caused by five-gallon propane tanks that had been exposed to extreme heat.
Homes within at least a block radius shook with the first of several explosions that alerted residents to the fire that quickly consumed the attached garage on the Albanos' north-facing home.
Inside the house, Craig and Eric Albano awoke to smoke, and then flames and their mom's calls of "Fire!"
Craig Albano said his mother was trying to douse the flames with a garden hose, and he had to yell her to get away from the blaze. But he himself went after the dogs, forcing open a door to get the older terrier outside.
He and the family feared Lulu was in the garage and might not have gotten out, and they had to wait for clearance from firefighters before someone could check the backyard, where the small, trembling dog hid in some bushes until her name was called.
Craig Albano tearfully seized the dog in his arms as soon as his father came toward him with it. "I really care for this little dog," he said.
A tall column of dark smoke was visible from downtown as firefighters responded to the fire near Hemlock Santa Rosa Fire Battalion Chief Mark Basque said.
The fire quickly spread through the fence to the house next door, though it only reached an exterior garage wall.
But both homes were rendered uninhabitable, and the Red Cross was called into provide assistance and housing, firefighters said. Westrope estimated the damage at $300,000.
As the first engine from Santa Rosa Fire's Coffey Lane station a few blocks away turned the corner onto Tuliptree, firefighters on board heard what sounded like a hand grenade and saw a flaming propane tank jet through the air into the neighbor's yard, where it scorched and melted the top of a hot tub before burning through a trampoline and dropping to the ground.
"You don't see that every day," said Fire Capt. Greg McCollum. "That would have been a fatality. A firefighter in front of that, that would not be good."