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Gullixson: So many fire stories that have yet to be told

The Sonoma County Day of Remembrance on SRJC's Bailey Field on Saturday, October 28, 2017. (photo by John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

PAUL GULLIXSON,

It’s been four weeks, but there are so many stories still to be told, that deserve to be told.

Stories about narrow escapes like that of Kaylynn Reeb, 68, of Geyserville, who is thankful for her husband’s weak bladder “for saving our lives.” As William Boutin, 71, got up at 5 a.m. on Oct. 9, he looked out the window “and saw there were flames just 20 to 25 feet away from the house.” He quickly got Kaylynn and their three dogs into their Toyota Corolla and started down their 600-foot driveway, only to find their path blocked by a large toppled oak tree. As William ran to the tool shed to get his chain saw, Kaylynn prayed that the machine still had some gas in it. It did. But as William worked with only a small flashlight to cut through the dark and the smoke, the flames spread to three sides of the house. It got so close, “my wife could hear the popping of the pine cones” from the heat, he said.

Ultimately, he managed to slice through the trunk blocking the road and another part of the oak that had fallen against a second tree. “I basically cut a tunnel through the branches that was just wide enough to drive through,” he said. With that, they made it down the hill to safety. But their house on a 40-acre spread between River Road and Ridge Oaks Road was a total loss, one of only three houses lost in the Pocket fire.

Then there are stories of those who somehow managed to escape devastation like that of Tebentz Bein, 60, a member of Santa Rosa’s tight-knit Eritrean community, who, while many families were fleeing Coffey Park, was fighting to get back in. She had left her home on Coffey Lane about 1 a.m. to pick up a cousin who was being evacuated from her residence along Calistoga Road and had no car. As they returned, the hills were aglow and the traffic was getting heavy. As they drove along Cleveland Avenue, Bein could see Kmart and other businesses burning. Fire trucks were behind them as they continued along Hopper Avenue. The power was out and the streets were so smoky and dark, Bein couldn’t read the street signs and didn’t recognize the corners. So why was she so eager to return? Because she had seven other children and grandchildren still back at her house. “I was scared,” she said. “I couldn’t find my street. As people came out to see the fire, I said, ‘Where is the Coffey Lane?’ ”

Ultimately, after a wrong turn, she somehow managed to locate her house and evacuate everyone to safety. She then woke up neighbors and drove to two other houses to get family members there evacuated as well. In all, eight families from the Eritrean community lost their homes, some of family members included, but, miraculously, hers was not among them. The fire stopped just two houses down from hers. But the relief was short-lived. At some point after they were evacuated, her house was ransacked and looted. Her son’s MacBook was stolen along with her TV and a number of other things including family jewelry from her home country. Nonetheless, when the Eritrean community gathered in Roseland on Saturday for support, Bein catered the event.

There are also the untold stories of those who worked behind the scenes, such as the emergency dispatchers, who, according to Sonoma County Sheriff Robert Giordano, received 450 calls in the first hour that the fires spread toward Santa Rosa and then averaged 300 calls every hour after that until after 8 a.m. The dispatchers “are the unsung heroes,” Santa Rosa Fire Chief Tony Gossner said at the moving “Day of Remembrance” gathering at Santa Rosa Junior College on Oct. 28. “I will tell you when they have someone on the phone and they are saying ‘There is fire everywhere, and I can’t get out.’ They say. ‘We are going to get somebody to you.’ ” But then these dispatchers sometimes would hear the heart-breaking news from firefighters on another line that they wouldn’t be able to reach those individuals in time. Nonetheless, “those dispatchers stay on the line … until the line goes silent,” Gossner said, with a pause to compose himself. “That is remarkable.”

And there’s the stories of the things that were lost, like that of Billy Andre, pastor of The Bridge in Santa Rosa, who fled his Coffey Park home at 2:40 a.m. along with his wife and three children. “As we were leaving. I grabbed dog food. My wife grabbed three photo albums,” he told the 1,200 people at the Remembrance ceremony. After learning that his house was destroyed, he went to open two of the large photo albums, “and I realized that they were empty,” he said. “We thought we had all the time in the world to put those pictures in those photo albums.”

Now he sees the albums as symbols, he said. One represents the things that were lost. “The things we can’t get back,” he said. The other represents the days ahead, to be filled with photos of what is come “and the photos that we are already filling it with.” These include the stories of heroism and stories of a community coming together in a time of crisis.

I imagine, these are the kinds of stories that will fill our pages for years to come, stories of selflessness, generosity and just simple acts of kindness.

Yes, there are tales of price gouging and looting and people trying to profit from the loss of others. But there are also abundant stories of people giving away food, clothing, money, furniture and, yes, even cutting rental prices to help house those in need. There are people like Mary Margaret Hachenburg, 70, of Santa Rosa, who called me to say she has two bedrooms and is willing to open her home in Rincon Valley to a couple or small family displaced by the fire. “And if they need another bed, we would be happy to let them have our bedroom,” she said.

And many people from outside of the area who worry for us, people like Brian Callaway of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who is planning to do a crayfish dinner fundraiser or some other benefit for firefighters in Santa Rosa. “Yes, we have hurricanes, and they come and go,” Callaway told me. “But these fires, my Lord, you see them coming, and there’s nothing you can do.”

These are among the stories that deserve to be told. Let’s face it, we all have a story to tell about what happened in those first few horrific hours and days of the fires. There’s not enough space to tell them all, but they are still a critical part of our narrative now — our collective story of what happened, what was saved and what was lost, and, most of all, what we are about to overcome.

Paul Gullixson is editorial director for The Press Democrat. Email him at paul.gullixson@pressdemocrat.com.