Leaving won’t be easy for Ramona and R. Curtis Smith.
Santa Rosa has been the couple’s home since 1961, the year Curtis Smith was recruited by two Bay Area developers to help build a new sort of suburban California neighborhood.
There were to be ranch homes, stables and bridle trails, a shopping center, Olympic pool, golf course, racquet club, 7-acre lake stocked with fish, natural amphitheater, mobile homes, apartment houses, churches and schools. The ambitious plans introduced some local folks to the word “condominium.”
The planned development was called Wikiup Rancho Estates. A 10-page grand opening promotional section in The Press Democrat May 6, 1962, touted it as a modern community — “The finest General Electric built-in appliances are included …” — that would honor the spirit of the equestrian haven, with its grand barns and 1.8-mile racetrack, that industrialist and fancier of thoroughbreds John Rosseter created there in 1915.
Not all of the amenities envisioned for Wikiup came to be. But the 720-acre development was built, and early on it was Curtis Smith who oversaw construction as project superintendent. That Wikiup section in the PD in ’62 noted that the Redwood City native “was virtually teethed on a hammer.”
For a few years, the Smiths were co-owners of Wikiup’s 9-hole golf course. And Curtis Smith volunteered in those days with the Rincon Valley Fire Department. He said he was nearly killed fighting the 1964 Hanly fire, which he recalls burning just one home in Wikiup.
Between 1967 and 1969, the Smiths and their three kids hand-built their own Wikiup home. Located on an elevated stretch of Wikiup Drive, it was an antiques-filled, ranch-style beauty on three-quarters of an acre with a postcard panorama of the Santa Rosa Plain.
“The Lord gave us real good years there,” said Ramona, who’s 87 and decades ago was a lead business office employee at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital and afterward at the former Community Hospital.
Then came the firestorm, eerily similar to that of ’64, that struck last October.
Neighbors awoke Curtis and Ramona Smith by banging on their front door. Like so many others that night, the couple couldn’t believe how quickly an orange glow to the east surged into a cascade of embers, then raging, in-your-face flame.
The Smiths grabbed a few possessions before Curtis helped his wife into the car. He returned back inside for another love of his life: the Martin saxophone he bought in 1947.
“As we were leaving,” he said, “I could see the flames creeping down the curb, in the leaves. The house across the street was already burning.”
He remembers either saying or thinking, “I can’t believe this is happening.”
The Wikiup-Larkfield area suffered daunting losses. More than 700 homes burned, also the magnificent, two-story stable that racehorse breeder Rosseter built just more than 100 years ago and that served until the fires as the Rancho Wikiup events venue and bed-and-breakfast.
The day after the October flames roared through Wikiup, Curtis Smith returned with his son, Michael, who lives in Windsor. All that stood on the site of their home were two chimneys.
Curtis, a Christian nearly all his 86 years, fell to his knees.
“I just got down on the driveway and I pounded and I pounded and I pounded,” he said. “I cried out, ‘Why? Why? Why me?’ I was mad at God. And then I paused and as if God put his hand on me … a calmness came over me, hearing him say, ‘Do not fear, I have a plan for you.’ ”