Kerry Benefield: Santa Rosa fire forever scars my hometown

The remains of Kerry Benefield's childhood home in Santa Rosa's Hidden Valley neighborhood after the Tubbs fire. (Kerry Benefield/The Press Democrat)


I’m ashamed to admit this, but when I was teenager I used to give the wrong cross street to the Domino’s pizza delivery guy, hoping he wouldn’t find my house in time and the pie would be free.

When I walked up and down the smoldering ruins of Aaron Drive just days after the deadly wildfires, looking at the basketball hoop lying torched and facedown on my old driveway, a bit of dark humor hit me — the pizza guy will never find the place now. It’s unrecognizable.

That feeling has stayed with me as I’ve driven around and walked the streets of Santa Rosa, a city that has been my home for nearly 40 years.

It’s been a personal and professional struggle to come to grips with what has happened here. The numbers are staggering: 23 dead in Sonoma County and more than 87,000 acres torched. The number of structures destroyed stood Saturday at 6,800, but that count is expected to rise.

The tragedy on a personal level for so many is unbearable. A lifetime of memories gone. Now, multiply that by the thousands.

The tragedy on a community level is unfathomable.

When I saw a video made by two guys, riding skateboards through their Coffey Park neighborhood the day before the fires broke out and then the day after, I wept. It showed the depth of love and loss like nothing a professional could do, no matter our best efforts.

The video shows them stopping to talk to a boy of about 12. He’s selling toys on a table set up on his driveway. The boy tells them he’s “just trying to get rid of something I don’t want anymore.” Hours later, the home behind him would be in flames. There aren’t words for that.

It made me think of riding my skateboard up and down Aaron Drive. The faded scar on the inside of my right knee is a reminder of wrecking on the corner with Sleepy Hollow Drive, en route to someone’s house. Friends were everywhere in that neighborhood. Their childhood houses, too, are gone.

The reach of this disaster is seemingly endless. It’s indescribable for me except for perhaps this — every day since this all began, I’ve been on the phone, at shelters, in someone’s home, and almost without fail, there will be a connection of shared loss. We all know each other.

At a Rohnert Park hotel, I learned mid-interview that the person I was talking with lived up the road from Karen, the woman who hosted my baby shower at her Foothill Ranch Road home. Both of their houses were destroyed.

In the FEMA emergency center in The Press Democrat building, I bumped into Alan, the father of a high school friend. I’d seen him at a party Saturday — one day before this all began. He told me the bushes in front of his home in Fountaingrove were burning as he drove away.

On Monday Oct. 9, I got a text from Katya. We’d been playing soccer hours before the fire broke out. She sent a picture of her Dogwood Drive home that faced Coffey Park. “This is my place,” it read. It was a photo of torched trees, ash and a few flames.

And still others: the friends who have hosted countless block parties in Wikiup; an aunt and uncle who hosted Thanksgiving every year because their home off Riebli Road was big enough and warm enough to welcome everyone; the family home of my oldest friend.

It’s the first story I can recall in my journalism career where people finish an interview with a hug instead of a handshake.

And so much of this work has been personal for me. On Oct. 13, I flashed my press pass to gain access back into to my old Sleepy Hollow neighborhood.

I lived on Aaron Drive from the time I was 9 until I was 15. My friends on the street were Stacey and Jenny and Cara and Ryan and Shelly Roby and her sisters. Even when my mom moved a mile down the road, I was still tied to Aaron Drive.

Shelly’s house was six doors down from mine. The Robys lived in that home for more than 40 years.

I invited myself into their house as a fifth-grader because they had a VCR and I didn’t. It feels like I never left. They fed me as a kid, I slept on their couch as a teen and drank their beer as an adult.

Pam and Don Roby raised three daughters there. Their dogs were always barking. The political debates were fierce, and Don loved to start the sparring before we even sat down.

But when I stood in front of the remains of that home, I couldn’t the grasp the enormity of what I was looking at. It was my memories, big and small, but it was so much more for the Robys: births and deaths, love and loss. It was a lifetime. And so much of it was gone.

At some point I put my notebook away.

Two firefighters walked by. They were going from smoldering lot to smoldering lot, putting out small spot fires. They asked if I needed anything. How do you answer that?

Alone again, I walked around the outside of the house, as if the walls were still there. Near what I can only guess was Pam and Don’s master bedroom, I saw something in the rubble. It was a metal box in the shape of a heart. It was small enough to fit in the palm of my hand. On the lid, in raised letters, was the word “Love.”

It was all that was left.

I hope for all of us it is enough.

You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”