Santa Rosa is still battling the inferno that engulfed it early Monday morning and remains an existential threat.
But the city is slowly coming to grips with the fact that many of those who lost everything in the fire are the very community leaders — CEOs, attorneys, doctors, judges, philanthropists, wine industry executives and government officials — who’ve had an outsized influence in shaping a city still very much in peril.
In some cases, they lived modestly, in tract-home neighborhoods like Coffey Park that have been obliterated. In many others, they lived in large, luxury hillside homes in natural surroundings that were tranquil until they turned terrifying.
Like thousands of city residents, people like Susan Gorin, county supervisor; Willie Tamayo, co-founder and vice president of La Tortilla Factory; Bill Carle, attorney and Santa Rosa school board member; Ben Stone, director of the Sonoma County Economic Board; and Karissa Kruse, president of Sonoma County Winegrowers, found themselves fleeing for their lives Monday.
They are just a few names on a growing list of community leaders who lost their homes, also including Judy Sakaki, Sonoma State University president; Sonoma County Superior Court judges Jamie Thistlethwaite and Elliot Daum; Levi Leipheimer, retired pro cyclist; Hugh Futrell, Santa Rosa developer; Nick Frey, former president of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission; and the top executives at the county’s three hospitals, Mike Purvis, CEO of Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital; Todd Salnas, president of St. Joseph Health Sonoma County; and Judy Coffey, area manager for Kaiser’s operations in Sonoma and Marin counties.
In many ways, they are better able to cope financially with such a blow than fellow residents with lesser means. And because of their deep ties to the community, they have strong support networks of generous friends and family who will help them recover and rebuild.
But right now they find themselves, like so many others, homeless.
Susan Gorin was in Colorado to be with her daughter for the birth of her grandchild Sunday night when the wildfires ignited and burned with profound speed.
Leaving her family behind, the 1st District county supervisor got back onto a plane and returned to Sonoma County, but evacuation orders prevented her from reaching her home in Oakmont.
Tuesday night, she received a call from state Sen. Mike McGuire, who was in front of her house while touring the area and called to alert her it had started to burn.
“He said, ‘What do you need, I’ll break in,’ ” Gorin said.
She gave him the code and told him where to find family photo albums, a computer, a few pieces of meaningful jewelry and an extra jacket for the cold. McGuire, Santa Rosa City Councilman Chris Rogers, CHP Commander Michael Palacio and others ran into her home and got out before it burned to the ground.
Wednesday, smoke still rose from the charred debris — an ironing board, twin chimneys, a water heater and a porcelain bird on a patio table. But the night Gorin and her husband lost their home, they gained a picture perfect granddaughter, Corrina Nadine Taylor.
“Like a phoenix out of the ashes my granddaughter was born,” Gorin said.
Bill Carle and his wife, Nancy, built their first home in Fountaingrove in 1985. They later moved into a newer home on Blue Sage Court, where they were sitting on their couch researching hotels for a December vacation Sunday evening. Just a few hours later, the unimaginable happened.
“We lived on that hill for 33 years, now both houses are gone,” Carle said Wednesday afternoon. “It’s unbelievable.”
The prominent attorney and longtime school board member smelled smoke around 10:30 p.m., but wasn’t too worried until he drove to the top of the hill and saw a distant glow in the northeast sky.
He called friends, like developer Hugh Futrell, who lived over Rincon Ridge on Wallace Road, and tried to keep tabs on the fire’s progress, which seemed to double in size every time. They started packing, and Carle raced down the hill to get gas. But when a fallen tree limb forced him to drive over the sidewalk to get around it, he worried he’d never get up the hill again, and turned back.
They escaped to safety, and have been staying in a friend’s home. Futrell lost his home, as well. Carle says he’s overwhelmed by the community’s generosity, and optimistic about the future. But while the firefight rages on, the city seems to be divided between those who’ve lived through the firestorm, and those living in fear of it.
“We’re done. We’ve lost everything. And yet we’re living with people who are wondering whether they are going to lose everything,” Carle said. “It’s very weird.”
Willie Tamayo spent a lifetime building his family’s La Tortilla Factory into a national business. By 2004, Tamayo and his wife, Darlene, had become successful enough to move into a 3,500-square-foot home in Palazzo Court, in the woody Sienna subdivision off Crown Hill Drive. That left them just 10 minutes to evacuate, leaving only enough time to grab medicine, laptops and some clothes. Darlene left in her slippers.
“It’s the middle of the night, you’re confused by the messages, you’re frightened, you’re angry, and you can’t think. What do I do first? What are my priorities?”
With the power out, they had to lift the garage door manually to get their cars out. After evacuating to the Finley Center, they headed toward Petaluma, and ended up staying with relatives there.
“We’re very grateful to be alive and safe,” Tamayo said.
He estimates it’ll take them two to three years to rebuild their home and their lives. But as an employer who was already concerned about the county’s housing crisis, Tamayo worries that fire victims who don’t have his financial resources might be forced to leave the area.
“Those who don’t have that type of income, that type of financial protection, they’re going to be most vulnerable,” he said.
Ben Stone bought his house in the Coffey Park neighborhood 30 years ago for $105,000.
As director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board, Stone probably could have afforded more, but he liked the area he described as “very friendly, middle-class living.”
As the economy he was charged with nurturing has thrived, the home’s value probably quadrupled since he bought it. Now there is nothing.
“Everything that seemed to matter so much is now just ashes and dust,” Stone said.
Like so many others, Stone had precious little time to evacuate. Around 4 a.m. a ringing noise woke him and he ran outside to see the sky ablaze. A police car rolled up Walnut Grove Street, its bullhorn blaring out the order to evacuate.
“He said ‘You gotta go or you won’t be able to get out,’ ” Stone recalled. “He didn’t need to justify it.”
The order was reinforced by the embers that were raining down on his neighborhood. He got out with his car and little more than the clothes on his back. He drove to San Francisco, spent the night, and returned the next day, a little piece of him hoping his home had been spared.
“When I turned the corner, I thought maybe I was one of the lucky ones,” Stone said. “But I was two houses on the wrong side of the fire line. So close, and yet so far away.”
A friend who is traveling has let him stay at his home in Cotati.
Stone said he takes solace in the knowledge that after major disasters, people rebuild. San Francisco was reborn after the 1906 earthquake and London survived months of bombings in World War II to become one of the greatest cities in the world, he said.
Sonoma County residents will learn lessons from the disaster, such as building more fireproof homes and better documenting their valuables, like Stone now regrets not having done for his collection of artwork. But Stone is confident the city and region will emerge stronger.
“I think we all have an opportunity to look forward and be positive,” Stone said.
Karissa Kruse spent Sunday working to promote Sonoma County’s wine industry, and the next day the industry returned the favor by coming to her rescue.
The president of Sonoma County Winegrowers was helping host a group of visiting sommeliers at a Carneros vineyard, and by the time she made her way home to Fountaingrove she was exhausted.
She was awakened around 1:30 a.m. to a neighbor pounding on her door yelling about the evacuation. The orange glow in the sky, fierce winds and thick smoke told her to move fast.
“You’re racing against an unknown clock,” Kruse said. “It’s crazy.”
All she had time to get was her purse, passport and a few personal items. As she battled traffic to make it down Chanate Road, she needed to figure out how to get herself and her parents to safety.
She reached out to people in the grape-growing community. Steve Dutton, a member of her group’s board of directors, came to meet her and her mother, who lives on Sonoma Mountain Road, giving them a place to stay on his ranch west of Graton, she said.
But her father, who has been at a memory care facility in Fountaingrove, was initially unaccounted for.
“They evacuated him, but we had no idea where,” Kruse said.
Later Monday, when she finally figured out that her dad had been taken to a church in Montgomery Village, Joe Dutton drove her and her mom there to retrieve him before they whisked him off to the East Bay, she said.
“When we were finally together again in the same vehicle, that was a really great moment,” she said.
She has been inundated with interview requests from local and national media, and has been trying to tell the story from the industry’s perspective, including the fact that at least this year’s grape harvest is safely in.
Staying focused on work has helped keep her from dwelling on what she has lost, she said.
“Instead of feeling helpless, I’ve been able to talk to my growers and others about this crisis,” Kruse said. “It’s given me a purpose, which I’ve really appreciated.”
Staff Writer Julie Johnson contributed to this report.