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Chris Smith: A very close call in Santa Rosa’s Fountaingrove, and the cremains lost in the ashes

A firefighter walks past homes that are fully engulfed in flames near Altruria Drive in the Fountaingrove area of Santa Rosa on Monday, October 9, 2017. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

CHRIS SMITH, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Susan Moore is a community dynamo quick to mobilize her huge network of friends to improve Roseland kids’ access to college-prep education and to press for real progress in areas such as gun violence and land conservation.

But she was a bit slow to join the evacuation of Santa Rosa’s hillside Fountaingrove neighborhood as tidal waves of flame raged through it in darkness.

If neighbors or anyone else had banged on the door of Moore’s home on the end of a short dead-end street off Fir Ridge Drive, she didn’t hear them. Awakened at last by the wind and inferno, she stepped onto her veranda to see flames 40 feet tall and bearing down.

The founder of Sonoma County’s No Name women’s group ran to open her garage door, thinking she’d gather her cats, Mali and Lily, into the car and race away. But the power was out and she couldn’t raise the door.

Dressed in her nightgown and socks, Moore grabbed a flashlight and ran into the street. “I thought neighbors might be able to help with the door,” she said.

Through the darkness and smoke she saw no signs of neighbors. But there were lights in the street — a fire pickup.

Moore waved her flashlight in its direction. The driver reacted, pulling up to her — she can’t help but think, what if she hadn’t had that flashlight and the firefighter had driven off without seeing her?

“Get in! Get in!” he called through the open passenger- door window. Moore pleaded with him, “I have to get my kitties, please help me.”

The firefighter shot back, “Your gown is on fire!” He told her they had to go, now.

“We’ll be lucky to get out of here.”

Moore slapped at the burning spots on her nightgown and climbed into the truck. The firefighter told her he couldn’t see the roadway through the smoke. “I could hit a tree,” he said, directing her to watch out her window for the curb.

They made their way onto Fountaingrove Parkway and down to the Veterans Memorial Building, where the firefighter let her off. It occurred to Moore later, through the trauma and the grieving for her cats, that she didn’t get the fireman’s name.

Without a flicker of doubt, she said, “He saved my life.”

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HIGH UP ON Curt Nichols’ to-do list, before he and his wife, Barbara, lost their home to the firestorm that incinerated northwest Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park neighborhood, was to scatter his parents’ ashes.

Vern and Mabel Nichols had asked that their cremains be spread about in a favorite place in the mountains. Curt, the well-known landscape architect and president of Carlile Macy engineering, had their ashes at home, in boxes.

In a flash Monday morning, his and Barbara’s entire home was reduced to ash and debris.

Agonized by the loss of his parents’ cremated remains, Nichols inquired about and located Lynne Engelbert, who’s worked disasters around the world with her human remains detection dog, a border collie named Piper.

They came Sunday morning to the rubble heap that was the Nichols’ home. Piper sniffed in the general area of where the boxes from the crematory were, then signaled that she’d found something.

Nichols emotionally gathered up his parents’ cremains.

“They reality is now they’re mixed with other ashes,” he said. “But at least they’re there.”

Chris Smith is at 707-521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.