Inside a salmon-colored stucco home with stately white pillars in Santa Rosa’s Fountaingrove neighborhood, Michael Fiumara handed his husband his morning medication, then poured himself a glass of juice. Breakfast was at the kitchen table, the television news on mute. The couple’s quiet routine was only disrupted by the loud motors of the pressure washers outside scrubbing the ash and soot away.
They used to have neighbors. Karen next door. Lorrie and John from Texas. Jill and Stefan with two kids and a poodle. House after house in Fiumara’s neighborhood was reduced to charred rubble by the firestorm that burned last month, leaving most neighbors here with little else than the clothes they wore while escaping the flames.
But Fiumara’s house, the flowers and lawn, the replica of Michelangelo’s David statue, it’s all still standing, an island of life amid destruction. A reminder of fire’s capricious path.
“I’m going through miles of devastation before I get to my house. It’s the same when I leave,” said Fiumara, 60, a Santa Rosa attorney. “I hear bulldozers all day, and at night everything is pitch black except for these big trucks with floodlights. It’s scary. It’s surreal. It’s a war zone.”
The firestorms that broke out in October and burned across 142 square miles of Sonoma County ultimately destroyed 5,130 homes. The Tubbs fire leveled entire portions of Coffey Park, Larkfield, Fountaingrove and the Mark West Creek corridor in northern Santa Rosa, while whole streets in Glen Ellen and Kenwood in the Sonoma Valley were razed by the Nuns fire, along with homes and ranches dotting rural Bennett Valley.
Winding parkways, suburban streets and rural lanes have been transformed into tours of destruction.
But by chance —a shift of wind, valiant firefighting, whatever the reason — some houses were spared amid total loss. Residents of these structures drove into their devastated neighborhoods and found they could still unlock the door, step inside and be at home.
That was important to Fiumara, whose husband, Gordon Larsen, 85, a retired surgeon, has Alzheimer’s disease. He fares better at home surrounded by his regular routine. Fiumara said he’s moved as fast as possible to get the interior cleaned, exterminate the vermin that moved in after the fires and make it livable again.
“Trying to get back to normal is difficult when you’re surrounded by charred remains,” Fiumara said. “We have it better than most. We can go back to our own bed.”
Feeling ‘super lucky’
Those homes spared by the fires reek inside of smoke.
Chris Bradshaw counts his family in the “super lucky” category, even though they cannot yet return home on Summerhill Lane in Bennett Valley. The house and all their belongings stink.
Bradshaw, his wife, their teenage son and tenants escaped the night of Oct. 8 with their four dogs and two cats, but they had to leave five horses and a dozen chickens behind. Amid the smoke and gusting winds, Bradshaw let the horses out to a pasture because there was no trailer. Moments later, a neighbor fleeing the fire approaching from Glen Ellen drove through the pasture fence to escape.
They were finally allowed back in Oct. 10 with a large trailer to rescue the horses and chickens, which had survived in an unburned portion of a pasture. The Nuns fire leveled neighboring homes in the rural enclave, and they were stunned theirs didn’t burn.