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Special coverage: Coffey Park Chronicles

Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

The wind screamed past the front of Gordon Easter’s northwest Santa Rosa home early Monday as emergency officials drove by and announced over loudspeakers that it was time for residents to go.

Across the street, in the predawn dark, Ben Hernandez and his family prepared to leave as the sky showered down woody debris aglow in flame.

“You could see embers falling the size of quarters,” said Hernandez’s son, Ben Hernandez Jr.

Their neighborhood, a compact subdivision of modest single-family homes built decades ago, was witness to a kind of unfathomable destruction Monday. Whole city blocks were claimed by fire, displacing perhaps several thousand people from an area with more than 1,000 homes.

The ashen fallout was so complete that it left many residents at a loss for words when they returned to survey the damage Monday afternoon.

Fire has long been a threat for residents in the wooded hills across Highway 101 to the east. This time, flames leapt from those hills, across the six highway lanes and frontage streets and rained down on their homes.

The fire incinerated houses stretching from a few blocks north of Piner Road almost to Dennis Lane on the northern edge of the city. In the middle of the subdivision, not a home appears to be left standing for three-quarters of a mile.

“It hasn’t really hit me that I don’t have anything I used to have,” said Easter, who has lived on Hopper Avenue for 20 years.

He paused to note the wreckage of a neighbor’s car in a nearby driveway. It worried him that the neighbor, a woman who lived alone, might have failed to escape the flames.

Seven deaths have been reported in northern Santa Rosa neighborhoods from the blaze, dubbed the Tubbs fire, and both Easter’s and the Hernandez’s homes lie in ruins, part of a terrible wasteland in the Coffey Park neighborhood.

Around the city park that gave the neighborhood its name, not a home remains. Coffey Park’s baby swings and blue slide looked untouched, but across the street burned-out cars littered driveways.

The residents expressed disbelief that a wildfire could reach their neighborhood from the hills where it earlier raged.

“It’s not supposed to happen this way,” said resident Gary Padgett. “But it did.”

Padgett’s rented home near Crimson and Kerry lanes was saved by Gold Ridge firefighters along the northwest edge of the neighborhood. Few homes remained to his east or west, though many were spared to the north.

“I’m thankful,” he said. “That’s all I can say.”

Public safety officials urged people to stay out of the evacuation areas, and late Monday city police announced a mandatory curfew in those zones from 6:45 p.m. to sunrise. But the magnitude of the fire’s damage brought out both residents and sightseers Monday to Coffey Park.

Most, like Hernandez, could do little but gawk over what was gone.

“We basically lost everything,” he said, standing near Hopper and Sumatra Drive. He choked up as he recalled that in the hurried evacuation he had left behind his wedding ring.

The fire jumped Highway 101 during the night, apparently near the Kohl’s department store on Hopper Avenue. Three nearby restaurants went up in flames.

In the first single-family neighborhood to the west, which includes Skyview and Crestview drives, only a dozen of the more than 200 single-family houses remained intact. Among them was the home of Grace Muga, who lives on Skyview with her parents and two siblings.

PDF: Lawsuit against Oakmont Senior Living and Oakmont Management

Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

Muga returned with her friend Farai Jumbe about 8 a.m. Monday to find the home largely untouched. When told how few of the surrounding homes survived, the two women dropped to their knees in disbelief.

Next door, a neighbor’s fence still burned, threatening Muga’s house. A Santa Rosa firetruck pulled up and a fire crew quickly doused the flames. A firefighter advised Muga that a working garden hose was nearby should she need it. As the crew got back in their truck, Muga prayed aloud, “God, watch over them, please.”

Across the street, chimney after chimney stood alone amid the rubble.

“These are my neighbors,” Muga said.

At the southwest edge of the morning’s destruction, the fire jumped the SMART train tracks near San Miguel Avenue, but it was stopped a few blocks to the west.

At Frida Street off San Miguel, all the homes on the east side remained standing, while nearly all the homes on the west side had been destroyed. Natural gas lines spewed flames.

John Murdick stood atop his home on the east side of Frida and doused the roof with a garden hose.

Asked how long he’d lived there, he yelled, “Twenty-seven years. And I’m not giving up.”

He evacuated in the early morning but returned with his wife, Joyce, before 9 a.m.

A neighbor, Peggy Sharp, soon drove up with partner Steve Balch to confirm that Sharps’ home had been destroyed across the street. Sharp remained stoic until she saw Joyce Murdick approach. The two neighbors hugged and wept.

“It’s unbelievable,” Sharp said of the destruction. “Just like that.”

The burned area’s southeast edge lay a few blocks north of Schaefer Elementary School near Sweetgum Street and Sweetgum Court. Roommates Travis Fuesz and Juan Valencia returned there Monday afternoon, passing by scores of destroyed houses.

“Our stomachs just sank,” Fuesz said of the neighbors’ losses. He recalled thinking, “There’s no way our home is still there.”

In fact, the home and those next to it survived on the south side of Sweetgum Court. However, across the street the fire appeared to have consumed several blocks of homes all the way north to Hopper Avenue.

On the burned area’s southern edge, San Francisco and Santa Rosa firefighters were able to stop the flames near Sansone Drive and Sansone Court, said resident Dan Buschena. Their efforts saved his house two blocks north of Piner.

Buschena returned to his residence about 8 a.m. to see the San Francisco firefighters battling flames consuming his neighbor’s home to the west.

When the firefighters learned Buschena owned the home next door, they sought to ease his mind. He recalled they told him, “We got it.”

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 707-521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @rdigit.

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