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.
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