Assistant Santa Rosa Fire Marshal Paul Lowenthal was in what sounded like a hailstorm of embers and ash that battered his truck as he tried to find a way through the fire burning above the city.
He’d been dispatched to St. Helena the night of Oct. 8 to help manage a Napa County wildfire that started near Tubbs Lane just north of Calistoga. But driving east on Porter Creek Road, he was forced to turn back before he reached the Napa-Sonoma county line.
Returning west along Mark West Springs Road sometime after midnight, Lowenthal saw “fire moving everywhere” outside his pickup. Flames were keeping pace with him, churning through rural estates and closing in on northern Santa Rosa even as he reached city limits.
He was certain Santa Rosa faced grave danger and called Fire Chief Tony Gossner to tell him he planned to order an evacuation that would ultimately cover almost the whole northern half of the city.
It would be hours before Lowenthal realized that his own Larkfield home was likely in the path of the sprawling firestorm that tore through town with unprecedented speed and ferocity.
At about 2:40 a.m., after making his way down from the burning highlands of Fountaingrove, Lowenthal drove north on Old Redwood Highway, buildings on both sides aflame, to check on the Oxford Court home he shared with his 9-year-old daughter. That evening, after a day spent together, she’d returned to stay with her mother.
“I got to the mouth of my neighborhood and just saw nothing but fire,” Lowenthal said Wednesday, “and there was nothing I could do.”
So he went back to work for six straight days that passed in a frenzied blur amid the county’s worst natural disaster on record.
A 20-year veteran of the fire service, Lowenthal is among dozens of local first responders who lost homes to the Tubbs fire and several other blazes that ravaged the region last week.
A total of 26 firefighters working in the greater Bay Area lost homes in Sonoma and Mendocino counties, including seven active duty Santa Rosa firefighters and five retirees, said Santa Rosa Firefighters union president Tim Aboudara.
At the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, 20 active duty and retired deputies and about 10 active and retired corrections officers lost homes, as well. In all, 166 Sonoma County government employees had their homes destroyed by fire, officials said.
Eight Santa Rosa police officers and one civilian technician, along with 16 retired employees, lost homes to the fires, according to the police officers association.
A disproportionate number appear to have lived in hard-hit Larkfield, an unincorporated area between Windsor and Santa Rosa on the east side of Highway 101, where firefighters and law enforcement personnel have found “a very tight public safety community,” said Mike Vail, president of the Sonoma County Deputy Sheriff’s Association.
Lowenthal lived a stone’s throw from Santa Rosa Fire Battalion Chief Scott Westrope in a neighborhood south of Mark West Springs Road, north of the former Ursuline High School. Just across the road is the ash-strewn lot in Mark West Estates that belongs to firefighter Tony Niel. And around the corner from him lives a sheriff’s deputy.
As people are allowed back into their homes in Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties, there are several safety issues to remember.
•Do not touch debris. Ash is a hazardous waste. Other hazards could include asbestos, heavy metals, byproducts of plastic combustion and other chemicals. Do not transport ash or debris to landfills or transfer stations. To be eligible for state-funded debris cleanup by CalRecycle, residents cannot move or spread debris. Any action by residents to remove debris may force CalRecycle to declare a site ineligible for the program.
•Wear protective clothing: closed-toed shoes, long pants, eye protection, a face mask and gloves.
•Do not rely on dust masks for protection. Paper masks found at hardware stores are designed to trap large particles like sawdust and will not protect your lungs from the smaller particles found in wildfire smoke. If you want to wear a mask, look for one with a particulate respirator, labeled NIOSH-approved, marked N95 or P100. Look for them on Amazon, Home Depot or other hardware retailers.
•Keep indoor air as clean as possible. Keep windows and doors closed.
•Avoid activities that increase indoor pollution like smoking, burning candles or using fireplaces. Vacuuming stirs up particles inside your house, contributing to indoor pollution.
•Do not turn PG&E service on. Either PG&E has been there and turned the gas on or homeowners must wait for them to do so. Customers without gas service should stay as close to home as possible so service can be restored when a PG&E representative arrives. If no one is at home, the representative will leave a notice with a number that customers can call to schedule a return visit. PG&E can be reached at 800-743-5000.
•If you see downed power lines near your home, treat them as if they are “live” or energized and extremely dangerous. Keep yourself and others away from them. Call 911, then notify PG&E at 800-743-5002.