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First responders in Sonoma County rushed to save lives as their own homes were burning

Santa Rosa Fire Department firefighters Tony Niel, left, Ray Spradlin and Alex Serrano play with a dog, along Shillingford Place, that they rescued from a backyard of a Fountaingrove area home, while Brian White tries to recover from back pain, during a short respite from fighting fires, in Santa Rosa on Monday, October 9, 2017. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

MARY CALLAHAN,

Assistant Santa Rosa Fire Marshal Paul Lowenthal was in what sounded like a hailstorm of embers and ash that battered his truck as he tried to find a way through the fire burning above the city.

He’d been dispatched to St. Helena the night of Oct. 8 to help manage a Napa County wildfire that started near Tubbs Lane just north of Calistoga. But driving east on Porter Creek Road, he was forced to turn back before he reached the Napa-Sonoma county line.

Returning west along Mark West Springs Road sometime after midnight, Lowenthal saw “fire moving everywhere” outside his pickup. Flames were keeping pace with him, churning through rural estates and closing in on northern Santa Rosa even as he reached city limits.

He was certain Santa Rosa faced grave danger and called Fire Chief Tony Gossner to tell him he planned to order an evacuation that would ultimately cover almost the whole northern half of the city.

It would be hours before Lowenthal realized that his own Larkfield home was likely in the path of the sprawling firestorm that tore through town with unprecedented speed and ferocity.

At about 2:40 a.m., after making his way down from the burning highlands of Fountaingrove, Lowenthal drove north on Old Redwood Highway, buildings on both sides aflame, to check on the Oxford Court home he shared with his 9-year-old daughter. That evening, after a day spent together, she’d returned to stay with her mother.

“I got to the mouth of my neighborhood and just saw nothing but fire,” Lowenthal said Wednesday, “and there was nothing I could do.”

So he went back to work for six straight days that passed in a frenzied blur amid the county’s worst natural disaster on record.

A 20-year veteran of the fire service, Lowenthal is among dozens of local first responders who lost homes to the Tubbs fire and several other blazes that ravaged the region last week.

A total of 26 firefighters working in the greater Bay Area lost homes in Sonoma and Mendocino counties, including seven active duty Santa Rosa firefighters and five retirees, said Santa Rosa Firefighters union president Tim Aboudara.

At the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, 20 active duty and retired deputies and about 10 active and retired corrections officers lost homes, as well. In all, 166 Sonoma County government employees had their homes destroyed by fire, officials said.

Eight Santa Rosa police officers and one civilian technician, along with 16 retired employees, lost homes to the fires, according to the police officers association.

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A disproportionate number appear to have lived in hard-hit Larkfield, an unincorporated area between Windsor and Santa Rosa on the east side of Highway 101, where firefighters and law enforcement personnel have found “a very tight public safety community,” said Mike Vail, president of the Sonoma County Deputy Sheriff’s Association.

Lowenthal lived a stone’s throw from Santa Rosa Fire Battalion Chief Scott Westrope in a neighborhood south of Mark West Springs Road, north of the former Ursuline High School. Just across the road is the ash-strewn lot in Mark West Estates that belongs to firefighter Tony Niel. And around the corner from him lives a sheriff’s deputy.

The Tubbs fire incinerated their neighborhoods, destroying hundreds of homes in Larkfield alone and more than 3,800 structures in the unincorporated area, according to preliminary estimates. In Santa Rosa, about 2,900 homes were lost.

Niel, 51, was back in his neighborhood Wednesday with the oldest of his two boys, 12-year-old Jordon, searching for whatever they might find in the remains of their Newport Place home. Among their keepsakes: his firefighting mementos and relics and the boys’ play equipment, barely distinguishable in the ruins.

“We’re playing, ‘Hey, what’s this?’” Niel said with admirable levity given the loss.

He awoke about 1:15 a.m. Oct. 9, his neighbor pounding on his door and a wall of fire moving down from the Mayacamas Mountains to the flatlands of the Santa Rosa Plain.

As family and neighbors tried to escape, they encountered roads clogged with panicked drivers and public safety personnel trying to keep people from harm’s way, fire sweeping westward — and over Highway 101 — toward Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park neighborhood.

He and his family were safe in two cars. They found their way north, and then west on River Road toward Fulton, where they pulled into a parking lot. There, Niel had to leave his family and enter the firefight. All of them were crying.

“All I remember was saying, “Do you really have to go? I don’t want you to go,” Jordon Niel recalled Wednesday. Mason, Niel’s 11-year-old son, told his father, “I don’t want you to die.” Niel told them, “Bubbas, you gotta trust me. I’m not gonna die.” Then he drove off into the night.

When he arrived at his regular fire station on Stony Point Road, it was emptied out — “a ghost town.” He and another firefighter took a Ford Explorer, “the chief’s buggy,” toward the fire to see where they could help.

Racing up to Fountaingrove and the area around Parker Hill Road, they soon encountered a couple running barefoot down the street trying to outrun the fire. The man wore boxer shorts, the woman a robe.

Niel picked them up in the SUV and drove them to safety. The woman, upon getting into the vehicle, told him she was the president of Sonoma State University — Judy Sakaki. She and her husband, Patrick McCallum, were awakened by flames in their Hanover Place home and had escaped at the last moment.

Niel, who relies on a strong religious faith and supportive family, said he held out hope through the night that his own home might survive. But that was only a passing thought as his focus that night, like all others on the fire lines, was on public safety, he said. It’s how firefighters operate, he said.

“You learn kind of to compartmentalize things,” he said. “I can’t help you if my mind is messed up.”

Santa Rosa Fire Engineer Brian White similarly cited “a kind of detachment” that firefighters cultivate, which makes it possible to do what’s needed in the midst of catastrophe like the one that struck Santa Rosa last week.

On Oct. 8, White and his girlfriend had just returned from a camping trip and were asleep at his home up Mark West Springs Road near Riebli Road. He rose and went outside after hearing his aunt and uncle fumbling amid strong gusts with an awning next to their trailer. Firebrands were racing through the air. Trees were burning across the road and one brushed the side of his van as he and his girlfriend made their escape.

His three children, “thank God,” were with their mother.

“You can’t even fathom what’s going on,” White said. “I couldn’t.”

They drove to his girlfriend’s home, then he continued to the Stony Point station — emptied of people and gear — and on into Roseland, where he eventually ditched his van in a traffic jam and ran to get turnouts and a helmet. He hitched a ride back to the Stony Point station and connected with a group of stray firefighters to battle the flames.

It would be another two days before he learned about his own home. A firefighter texted him to say it was gone.

“I wasn’t worried about it,” he said, about his time on the fire lines. “It just wasn’t a priority.”

“Everything I lost, apart from the mementos, can be replaced,” said White, 44. “And even the mementos, I still have the memories.”

Still, what amazes him from that span of terrifying hours and exhausting days is the heroism of so many civilians who alerted neighbors and rescued strangers.

“Those of us who are firefighters and public safety, this is what we train to do and we have that mindset,” White said. “What about the people who don’t have the training?”

Santa Rosa Police Officer Chris Diaz also credited civilians with rising to the occasion during the firestorm and helping one another. It burned through Coffey Park too quickly for police officers to alert all residents.

Diaz had just reported for emergency duty on the fires when a sergeant came into the room to announce the fire had jumped Highway 101 and was headed to Coffey Park.

His regular sergeant just looked and said, “Go!” knowing that Diaz’s family lived at the end of a spur off Coffey Lane near the highway.

He arrived in time to evacuate his wife and two daughters and make sure several neighbors got out. But they were forced to negotiate “a tunnel of flames” leaving their house, often losing track of the road and even the front of his patrol vehicle in the smoke.

The fire “moved super fast, so every 30 seconds, every minute, was an entirely different picture,” said Diaz, 46.

After his family was safe, Diaz returned to Coffey Park and pounded on doors in the neighborhood as flames spread street to street. Often his alerts came as the house next door burned.

He told residents they would die if they didn’t leave.

“It was not a question of what needed to happen. It was, ‘How fast can we make it happen?’” he said Wednesday, still coughing deeply from the smoke inhaled that night.

“After I left my family, I went back because that’s my job. That’s what I expect of myself. But that’s what my community expects, without question.”

He recalled one resident who asked for help evacuating a blind neighbor. Another woman driving alone in a vehicle agreed to take a couple he found in the street without a car.

“This was an effort by every officer, every fireman and every citizen to do their part — small, large, whatever. It was an effort by everyone. There was no single individual. Everyone just stepped up.”