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Santa Rosa fire’s toll for Larkfield area includes 1,500 homes, 15,000 acres burned

Rincon Valley and Windsor Fire Protection District fire chief Jack Piccinini talks with Larkfield and Wikiup residents about the Tubbs fire, Thursday Nov.2, 2017 in the Larkfield. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2017

RANDI ROSSMANN,

LARKFIELD — The broad bay door of the firehouse was open Thursday evening and the engines and trucks inside moved out so more than 200 people could sit and stand through the emotional night that would unfold.

Almost four weeks after the Tubbs fire bore down Mark West Springs Road and decimated large parts of this bedroom community tucked against the hills north of Santa Rosa, residents had come to air their grief, voice their thanks and ponder together what comes next.

The wind-driven firestorm obliterated almost 1,500 homes here in the Rincon Valley Fire District, which suffered the greatest toll outside of Santa Rosa. Eleven of the 21 people reported killed in the Tubbs fire lived in a relatively narrow corridor of this 94-square-mile rural and suburban fire district, covering most of Santa Rosa’s outskirts.

The victims were caught by flames and smoke in their homes or outside as they tried to flee. One visiting couple took shelter in a backyard pool. He survived, she did not.

The shock among residents and firefighters and terrible toll of that night are still plain to witness here. Two neighborhoods at the main entrance to Larkfield, at Old Redwood Highway and Mark West Springs Road, were leveled by flames, with hundreds of hillside homes farther east also destroyed. Landmarks including Cricklewood restaurant and Willi’s Wine Bar are gone, and campuses including Cardinal Newman High School were badly burned.

Inside the firehouse, just a block from the fire line, Rincon Valley Chief Jack Piccinini said on Thursday that a small number of local firefighters evacuated many people that night last month and made key stands, saving homes in Larkfield and Wikiup, as well as Molsberry Market and St. Rose School.

“They stood strong and did great work. And I can’t be more proud,” the tearful fire chief said in his introductory remarks.

But this was the first opportunity for many residents to confront authorities responsible for public safety, and while the majority said they were grateful for their efforts, some had biting questions about the events of that night.

“Who is the man who left me to die?” yelled resident John Smihula, the first in the crowd to stand and speak.

He told of a locked gate across Michele Way blocking his escape from his burning neighborhood. He said a resident on the other side saw him but left, so he and his large dog tried to hike to safety as fire closed in.

“I watched my dog go up in flames,” he yelled, furious. “I almost didn’t get out.”

Piccinini said fire officials would look into the gate issue, as well as other concerns raised by residents.

“We get a sense for the passion, the fear and the frustration,” Piccinini said. “It helps us. It’s important to hear your stories.”

Across Sonoma County, where more than 5,100 homes were destroyed and at least 23 lives were lost in the fires, enough time has passed so that questions posed in the earliest hours of the disaster are now reaching officials in public settings.

They concern the emergency alert system that failed to reach many people that night, the government-funded cleanup effort underway and the long rebuilding process in store for many communities.

Some residents of Larkfield, Wikiup, Mark West Springs and Riebli roads say they feel their losses have been overshadowed by the near-complete destruction in Santa Rosa’s Fountaingrove and Coffey Park neighborhoods, which each lost more than 1,000 homes.

Roughly 15,000 acres, comprising a quarter of the Rincon Valley Fire District, burned, Piccinini said. Many residents said they had little to no warning about the fire’s advance on their homes.

“We could have had time to prepare, warn neighbors,” said Lisa Tierber Nielson, of Wikiup. “How are you going to fix the communication problem?”

Donner Drive resident Alyssa Kutzer, breaking down in tears, told of how a fire dispatcher about 10:30 p.m. on Oct. 8 told her the smoke she smelled in her Riebli Road neighborhood was from a fire far in the distance.

“‘It’s 20 miles away from you. Don’t worry,’” she recalled the dispatcher saying. In fact, the Tubbs fire had started before 10 p.m. outside Calistoga, on a hillside that was less than 8 miles away. It would be in northeastern Santa Rosa before 2 a.m., and sooner on Kutzer’s block.

She and her son were awakened by pounding on their door. They fled, and their home was soon destroyed. “I’m 49 years old, and I feel like I have no past,” she said.

Three of Kutzer’s neighbors died in the fire. Tears overflowing, she said, “I’m mad I was told ‘Don’t worry about it.’ We lost three people and I’m mad at myself for going to bed.”

Still, multiple times during the meeting, residents voiced hearty cheers and gave standing ovations to firefighters for their efforts during the three-week battle to protect lives and property. Two dozen Rincon Valley and Windsor firefighters stood at the back and around the side of the room.

“I’m just so proud of all of you,” Tierber Nielson told the firefighters.

Piccinini said many Sonoma County sheriff’s deputies and firefighters risked their lives driving into areas engulfed in flames to save people. They used sirens and horns, pounded on doors and threw people into their vehicles to get them out, he said.

But they couldn’t get to every street and he acknowledged breakdowns in communication with residents, which was affected by power outages and wrecked cellphone towers.

“We’re already trying to figure out where some of the pitfalls are,” said the veteran fire official. He called the unprecedented event “a litmus test” for the county’s emergency alert system.

“Every piece of the fire is going to have its own story,” Piccinini said. “We’re going to put the puzzle together.”

Retired San Francisco firefighter Jeff Myers, who lost his Larkfield home, told the crowd, “If you got out be grateful.

“What they did was nothing short of a miracle. They could have put 500 firefighters on the line (and) they wouldn’t have stopped that monster,” he said.

The Rincon Valley Fire District, already under financial strain, faces an estimated $1 million budget cut from the loss of property tax revenue tied to the burned homes.

“It’s brutal, and that’s what’s going to be reflected in the budget, too,” said Piccinini, who is meeting with other officials to hammer out a solution.

Displaced residents within the firehouse crowd wore borrowed clothes or brand-new ones.

Bob Pintane, board president of the Rincon Valley Fire District, who lost his home, had on new denim jeans and a jacket.

Like many others, he didn’t get an evacuation notice and escaped just before his house in the flats of Larkfield burned.

Firefighters saved the home of Anna Richmond, but she and her family, including two young children, are “living like gypsies,” moving from place to place until smoke damage is eliminated and they can go back, Richmond said.

She is gripped by a sense of guilt that her rental was spared while many neighbors are now homeless.

“We’d take walks and now those neighborhoods don’t even exist,” Richmond said. “It’s gut-wrenching.”

Molsberry Market, the family-owned store and cornerstone of Larkfield’s shopping center, is a hub of normalcy. It bustles with cars and shoppers, a stark contrast with the emptied, leveled blocks nearby.

“About one-third of our customers have lost everything,” said co-owner Brian Molsberry, a lifelong Larkfield resident whose home survived.

The business employs 65 people and since the evacuation orders were lifted, it has become a daily scene of reunions, tears and recounting, Molsberry said.

“We’re hugging them. People are coming in here almost like its some sort of normalcy, an escape from out there.”

You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 707-521-5412 or randi.rossmann@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @rossmannreport.