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The Tubbs fire: How its deadly march from Calistoga to Santa Rosa unfolded

Larry Broderick finds a piece of a single page from his high school yearbook amidst the rubble of his former home in the Parker Hill neighborhood of Santa Rosa on October 13, 2017. (photo by John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

JULIE JOHNSON,

Cal Fire Battalion Chief Gino DeGraffenreid was about to jump back into his truck after loading a fleeing family into a police car when he thought he heard someone yelling amid the roaring wind and fire in the hills northeast of Santa Rosa.

He ran toward the voice and saw them: a couple wearing next to nothing, freezing amid an unprecedented fire belching smoke and raining firebrands.

“They were soaking wet,” DeGraffenreid said. “They had awoken to a smoke detector, jumped in the pool and for about an hour had been in the pool trying to stay away from heat.”

He wrapped them in T-shirts, put them into his truck and caravaned with police down Michele Way to Mark West Springs Road, a white-knuckle trip with fire and intense heat — a burning neighborhood already wiped clean of all that had once been so familiar.

“All of the landmarks — the houses, the fences, the goofy Volkswagen bug — all of the visual landmarks were gone,” DeGraffenreid said.

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Gale-force winds fueled an unprecedented number of wildfires that started almost simultaneously after night fell Oct. 8 in places across the North Coast region, killing at least 40 people in four counties and forcing entire communities to evacuate, including about 50,000 Sonoma County residents.

The battle to contain fires covering more than 178,000 acres across the region continues still.

Tracing the start of what’s now called the Tubbs fire — named for its origin near Tubbs Lane just north of the Calistoga city limits — shows how one fire overwhelmed emergency personnel, erupting amid Diablo winds on a Sunday night when many were asleep.

In just over four hours, the Tubbs fire made a horrific 12-mile run from Calistoga, in the northern edge of the Napa Valley, into a dense city neighborhood in west Santa Rosa. It raced through ranches and rural communities, sweeping through million-dollar homes in Santa Rosa’s hillside Fountaingrove development and tract neighborhoods in Larkfield-Wikiup. At 2 a.m., the ferocity of the firestorm propelled it across Highway 101, an unprecedented leap that spread flames into a commercial district on Cleveland Avenue and hundreds of tightly packed homes in Coffey Park.

The fire traveled at a pace of about 3 mph, burning up about an acre a minute while spewing burning embers a half-mile or more ahead, forcing entire neighborhoods to flee in the middle of the night.

“For a fire to move that fast is incredible,” said Eric Hoffman, a retired assistant chief with Cal Fire who rejoined the state fire agency to help manage the firefight and later calculated the fire’s speed.

Authorities have said nothing about what caused the fire.

Erratic winds

One week ago, as dry, strong winds began to buffet the region after night fell, fires began erupting in a chaotic pattern across Sonoma County, like bombs going off in every direction.

Flames engulfed a home on Mark West Station Road near the Sonoma County Airport. An electrical box was smoking on Maverick Court in the hills above Larkfield. Officers went door to door in Santa Rosa’s West End neighborhood as a Pierson Street home burned.

The 50 mph winds flung branches every which way and knocked drought-stricken trees off weakened roots, combining with downed power lines to block major roads from Highway 101 in Sonoma County to Highway 128 north of Calistoga.

That was all before Napa County dispatchers reported “another wildfire” about 9:45 p.m. Oct. 8, north of Calistoga on Highway 128 near Bennett Lane.

The wind hit like a wall about 9:30 p.m. when Anne Pelton stepped outside her Mountain Ranch Road home, about 2 miles as the crow flies from the fire’s origin. She went back inside, and called Calistoga police just before 10 p.m. — a dispatcher said a fire started just north of Calistoga city limits.

Then at 10:18 p.m. a neighbor sent an urgent text message: the whole hillside was ablaze.

DeGraffenreid had already alerted every station in six counties to be on alert and fully staffed because of the wind. Within about 10 minutes of the Tubbs fire’s start, DeGraffenreid, still en route from west Santa Rosa, could tell by reports on the ground that the fire was spreading fast. He called for two chief officers and 10 engines, ordering Cal Fire fighters inside of the burning home on Mark West Station Road to leave immediately and head east.

“This fire was going to kill people. We knew it that night,” DeGraffenreid said.

Bringing in dispatchers

KT McNulty, who was supervising Sonoma County’s 911 dispatch center that night, called in more staff. Dispatchers arrived with children in tow, putting on a movie and tucking them in blankets.

By 10 p.m., dispatchers were taking more than 300 calls an hour — as much as they usually handle in one day.

“It went from one spot fire to hundreds and hundreds of spot fires, from one house on fire to hundreds and hundreds of houses on fire,” McNulty said.

Erratic, gusty winds had on- and off-duty firefighters throughout the region listening to their emergency radios, and DeGraffenreid’s call had many jumping into their trucks and engines to head to the fire.

A wall of fire cut Santa Rosa Battalion Chief Mark Basque off at Franz Valley School Road, so he went around another rural road. He and other firefighters found the mountainous community already aflame and a catastrophic scene. At one point, a car raced up out of the smoke, its panicked driver and passengers with burns. They begged him to go back into the fray for a man who had fallen behind after hurting an ankle.

Using his PA system, Basque called out and “by some small miracle” the man responded. Basque got him out, as well as a group of neighbors who had huddled in a pool.

Clogged roads

Starting at 10:51 p.m., Sonoma County sheriff’s Sgt. Spencer Crum fired off a succession of public warnings about fires in various parts of the county: Mark West Springs and Riebli Roads, Shiloh Road and Conde Lane in Windsor, Highway 116 and Fredericks Road in Sebastopol.

At 11:03 p.m., he ordered evacuations along Porter Creek Road, Petrified Forest Road and warned people that 911 dispatchers were “inundated.”

By 11:08 p.m., he issued an evacuation notice for Calistoga, and warned the public about a fire in Kenwood.

As residents clogged the roads heading out, firefighters and law enforcement officers streamed into the mountainous region between Santa Rosa and Calistoga, praying trees wouldn’t block their escape as they drove up narrow driveways and pounded on doors to get people out.

Monte Rio Fire Chief Steve Baxman’s truck caught fire somewhere near Riebli Road and a tree came crashing down, smashing a window. When he stopped to remove the tree, a burned woman ran up calling for help.

“If we didn’t hit that tree, she would have died,” Baxman said.

Baxman continued down the hill, and when he got down toward Cardinal Newman High School — where he graduated in 1970 — the gym was burning.

Dispatchers sent him toward nearby Angela Drive where someone was in immediate peril, but Baxman was stopped by powerful flames. Authorities would later find remains.

The terrain — a rolling mountainous region cut by creeks and canyons — meant residents couldn’t necessarily see the fire’s menace. The wind threw branches and debris, waking sleeping residents before the smoke seeped into houses.

About midnight, a wind-thrown patio umbrella woke up Martha Menth, 58, on Sundown Trail near Riebli Road. She had been sleeping on the living room couch near the hospital bed where her husband lay, still recovering from a debilitating stroke.

She opened the front door and was hit by the smoke. She woke up her husband, began packing a bag, and called her sister who lived up the hill. The power went on and off, and she managed to get the garage door open before it went off for good.

Without power, and bombarded by smoke and wind, Menth fumbled with trembling hands to use a hand crank to lower the electric wheelchair lift and get her husband down to the driveway.

“Every 10 rotations the chair only went down a fraction of an inch. I was watching the big red glow on the horizon. The fire was loud, so loud, a guttural roar,” Menth said.

She got the wheelchair down and managed to heave her husband into the passenger seat, joining a long line of traffic from people escaping westward down Mark West Springs Road.

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Fire moves in various ways, running up hills, backing down hills, and depending on the terrain, weather and fuel, it creeps in some places while in others making fast runs, torching and spotting ahead.

Its headed south from Fountaingrove into the neighborhood north of Hidden Valley Elementary School, where its spread was at times a slow methodical burn, going house to house.

Off Parker Hill Road, Larry Broderick packed his wife and their three boys into the car shortly after a neighbor pounded on their door at 1:30 a.m. Broderick, 51, stayed behind to attempt to save their Flintwood Drive home in the neighborhood where he has lived since he was 5 years old.

Keeping an eye on the hills around him, and the streets he planned to take for an escape, he fired up every hose he could find on his little street, starting what would be a futile five-hour ordeal trying to save homes.

Dispatchers inundated

With fire on his heels coming down after a harrowing hour or two of door-to-door evacuations on narrow roads throughout the Mark West Springs Creek canyon, Crum reached the Estancia Apartments on Old Redwood Highway as surrounding Larkfield began to burn. Panicked residents were getting in cars and leaving, and he found a man in a wheelchair who had no way out. Crum waved down a passerby.

“I literally shoved him into the car next to a kid in a toddler seat,” Crum said. “By this time, it’s howling. There was nothing but ash coming into your face.”

People were deluging 911 dispatchers with calls for help. They called when trees blocked the road, trapped in harm’s way. Dispatchers scrutinized maps of fire trails and helped people hike to safety. They stayed on the line during harrowing ordeals with people trapped in pools or homes. They sent emergency personnel to homes when it was already too late.

In east Santa Rosa, Cecilia Rosas, 30, had been monitoring the fire’s progress and making calls to her parents, who lived on Santiago Drive in Coffey Park, worried about the smoky stench and orange glow to the east.

She couldn’t imagine a fire could ever cross four lanes of Highway 101.

By 2 a.m., the fire had leapt across the highway, bombarding big-box stores and storming into the Coffey Park neighborhood.

Around that time, Rosas stepped outside her home near Guerneville and Fulton roads and “the wind hit us, lifted me off the ground.”

“I called my mom and said evacuate immediately,” Rosas said.

They got out as embers began raining down, often grabbing keys, shoes and little else.

The wind tore through the neighborhood. Firewhirls — small fire tornadoes — ripped garage doors away and threw them into the street.

Outgunned by the fires sweeping over the neighborhood, crews made stands where they could in the tightly packed, middle-class neighborhood of more than 1,000 homes.

Basque and Cal Fire Battalion Chief Marshall Turbeville joined police officers going door to door, raising the alarm. At one resident care facility, they arranged the evacuation of a group of elderly women in wheelchairs reluctant to leave.

The order was pick a spot, reach a hydrant and save a home. Dennis Lane, Vermillion Street, Crimson Lane, Barnes Road, all streets where they made a stand for some houses but were unable to save others.

“We went where we could do the most good. I had to give up a couple streets with a few houses,” Basque said. “We struggled with water pressure. That was really difficult to overcome.”

On Barnes Road two homes burned, flanking one not yet afire. Basque told firefighters to save it.

“Keep it off the house in the middle,” Basque said. “And they did.”

The destruction of Santa Rosa mirrored what firefighters had fought over and over in large Southern California blazes. This time it was home.

Back on Flintwood Drive, Broderick using every garden hose he could find to wet down roofs, fences, bushes, gardens at his home and several others, calling upon the tactics he’d learned during a yearlong stint in the state fire service several decades ago. He tried to avoid being spotted by emergency responders so he wouldn’t distract them.

Broderick managed to extinguish fires on several neighbors’ homes and fences with the goal “to hold it at bay on my block until the sun came up and winds died, or a strike team came in.”

But the winds persisted. The fire engines with rescuers didn’t arrive. And the flames came roaring from three directions, converging down into his neighborhood.

Fire lit up a stand of tall pines across the street. Broderick took a hard fall when a hose got caught on one of his son’s bikes, and his glasses flew off his face. He looked up and the fire had “quadrupled” in size.

By 7:15 a.m., his fight was over. He got in his SUV and drove out, surrounded by fire burning the homes of his neighbors, his friends. At least five families in his son’s Cub Scout’s troop lost homes.

Before nightfall, Broderick slipped past roadblocks, and saw the rubble that was once his home. The twisted mattress wires marked the beds where he and his family had slept the previous night. There was almost nothing left intact, but he found a small ceramic vase he bought in Ireland for the woman who would eventually become his wife.

But it was too hot to touch. He left it behind.

Staff Writer Randi Rossmann contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.