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Santa Rosa family’s narrow escape from flames began with son’s rescue

(Courtesy photo)

KERRY BENEFIELD,

Nicole and Keith Durnford were just back from a weeklong trip to Disneyland, where their 4-year-old son had spent the vacation ailing.

That Sunday morning two weeks ago, hours before the deadly wildfires broke out, Nicole Durnford took Dylan to the doctor and began giving him medication for an ear and sinus infection. By bedtime, he was out cold, asleep in his upstairs bedroom in their home on Santiago Drive in Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park neighborhood.

By midnight Nicole was up.

“I thought something in our house was on fire,” she said.

She checked around and found nothing. Keith went online and saw flames had been reported in Fountaingrove, across Highway 101 to the east.

But at that point, the enormity of the firestorm that was about to sweep down from the hills into Coffey Park was not clear. So the couple went back to bed.

Nicole thinks it was about 2 a.m. when she awoke and saw her phone had two messages. Neighbors who live a few blocks away were telling her to evacuate immediately.

The Durnfords, who have lived on Santiago Drive almost nine years, ran outside to warn others. Nicole noticed their neighbors’ car was gone and called for Keith to come back.

But the strong wind and explosions that rocked the night made it so loud he couldn’t hear her. One of those gusts blew the front door shut, with the couple outside.

The door was locked. Inside, Dylan was upstairs, asleep.

“I’m pounding on the door, trying to wake up Dylan,” Nicole Durnford said. “I was trying to get him to hear me and come open the door.”

But she knew it was futile. And now she could see flames four or five houses away on San Sonita Drive.

She circled around to the left side of the house as Keith headed right. Neither could break through the double-glazed windows. So Keith started going after the two-car garage door. It, too, was locked.

“I kept shoulder charging it,” he said. “I just kept doing it and doing it and (the lock) just busted and I could lift the door up.”

But the door leading from garage into the house was locked, too.

Without pause, Keith reached up and yanked down the cord for the trap door leading to the attic. He climbed the fold-up ladder and scampered through the attic on the same level as the second floor. He pulled away insulation and began kicking his way through an interior wall, busting into a room on the second floor.

“The adrenaline you can get from when your little boy is in danger, you’d do anything,” Keith Durnford said. “I was amazed at the things I could do.”

He ran downstairs and unlocked the front door for Nicole, who collected their son.

Then the lights went out.

By the light of his cellphone, Keith grabbed the computer hard drive. Nicole grabbed her still-packed suitcase from vacation and a basket of clean, unfolded laundry. And she held tight to her son.

“When Dylan and I came out front and those embers were falling, they were huge and falling into leaves from the trees,” she said. “It just happened so fast.”

Dylan was crying as she fastened him into the backseat of her car. Her husband jumped into his car and then the family sped away from their home in the two cars, northbound. The flames were four houses behind them.

On San Miguel Road, they ran into traffic from others in their neighborhood fleeing the blaze. At one point they both flipped U-turns and eventually they wound up in downtown Santa Rosa, where they found a hotel room.

Their home, like roughly 1,300 others in Coffey Park, was destroyed by flames. Friday, 12 days after the fire, was their first time back in the neighborhood.

The couple visited and found nothing in the rubble.

The family is staying in Santa Rosa with a retired couple, parents of a coworker of Keith’s, who took them in just moments after meeting them.

“It’s truly humbled us,” Nicole Durnford said. Friends she hasn’t seen in years are bringing her supplies. Her employer vowed to pay her even though she hasn’t been back to work.

“I’m truly grateful for how much people have helped us and continue to help us,” she said. “We have nothing and they have been so nice.”

Dylan remains traumatized. He hasn’t slept well and has woken up crying.

“For him, it was the way we left,” his mother said. “It was literally feeling like we were getting chased by flames.”

But he’s back in preschool and had a playdate recently with a former neighbor. And he’s starting to sleep better.

He still has questions.

“He understands. He’ll tell people ‘My house burned down,’” Nicole Durnford said. “But then he’ll ask if we can go home, ‘Mommy, when can we go home?’”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.