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.
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.