The wind spewed embers, a tempest with flames encroaching on both sides of Highway 101. Dr. Scott Witt, rushing to the hospital where his patients awaited, quickly realized his pickup truck couldn’t maneuver through the roadblocks and obstacles, so he rushed back to his Fountaingrove home for his BMW motorcycle.
Witt had one thing on his mind –– those babies.
The director of the Newborn Intensive Care Unit (NICU) was on a mission that night to evacuate eight infants from Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital when the wildfires threatened the hospital and everyone in it.
When Witt reached his home, he learned the sheriff had in his absence been through the neighborhood with a bullhorn, alerting people of a mandatory evacuation.
“I said rather than pack anything, I told my family to get in the car and leave and head south so I wouldn’t have to worry about them and I could focus on the babies,” he said.
Then Witt climbed on his BMW 2015 R NineT motorcycle and darted through smoky backroads, weaving through flames. He pulled into Sutter around 3 a.m., and saw the fires in the parking lot and the security team on the roof dousing out embers.
“It was more significant than what I had thought,” he said. “The fire was actually close to the hospital.”
Once inside the NICU, Witt could see it in the parents’ eyes –– frantic worry.
“They knew it was a dangerous situation and so I had to say ‘I’m going to do everything I can to make sure your baby is safe, even if that comes to putting myself at risk,’” Witt said. “‘I’ll do that because that’s what a mom would do.’”
Witt began prepping for evacuation by assembling ambulances to drive the newborns to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, roughly six miles away. The newborns were already in the throes of a life and death struggle, infants who couldn’t survive without the support of incubators, IVs, feeding tubes or oxygen. He calculated the three transports with painstaking detail, considering which newborns needed feeding tubes, IVs or incubators. Witt also calculated how many bassinets could fit on the floor of an ambulance to configure the best make-up for each transport.
When the last ambulance was ready to take off, Witt asked the driver if he could follow close behind on his motorcycle so he could coordinate care for the babies with the doctors at Memorial Hospital once they arrived. The driver called ahead to warn the police because Highway 101 was closed to all but emergency vehicles. On that day, though, they made an exception for one 2015 BMW R NineT motorcycle.
Trailing the speeding ambulance, Witt swerved around cars, dodged tree limbs and skirted downed power lines after flames had breached Highway 101.
“The ambulance had the siren on and as soon as we got on the freeway I could immediately tell there were things on fire on either side of the freeway,” Witt said. “I mean actual trees right there on fire. As soon as the gravel stopped there was fire. That was the first time I was like, ‘huh, this could actually hit me.’ I had some live embers hit me and I’d try to brush them off.”
While the ride was nerve-wracking, the doctor pressed on. The two newborns at the highest risk were a set of premature twin girls, each weighing three pounds, each with an oxygen tube in their nose.
“With the right environment and time, these babies can heal and grow,” Witt said. “But the right environment is the important concept, something they need even while in transport.” Witt said he was particularly relieved when he was able to secure an incubator for the twins, and had the other infants safely set up.
“We love these babies just like their parents do, not with the same mother love because you can’t reproduce that, but we’re as close as you can get to that,” Witt said.
Witt and the newborns made the trek to Memorial unscathed and he coordinated the transition for the treatment from memory. He said all the parents thanked him for keeping their babies safe, but it’s still very raw for them.
“It’s not easy for parents to talk about it,” Witt said. “As a parent you want to feel like you have the power to protect your kid and everything is going to be okay because you’re their parent.”
With the babies safe at their new location, Witt tracked down his wife, Megan, and their five kids –– Mason, 18; Tempe, 15; Porter, 12; Serenity, 9 and Mercedes, 3. They were eating a home-cooked breakfast at Sebastopol’s Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. As they scrolled through Facebook posts all morning, they learned some of their neighbors lost their homes.
Witt decided to ride his motorcycle back to their neighborhood to see if their house was still standing.
“All the way up there, every turn, I kept thinking, ‘Well, mine might be OK; my house might be OK; my house can survive,’” Witt said.
But instead of seeing the 4,600-square-foot stucco home on the 1.6-acre spread, Witt saw charred rubble with few recognizable items –– broken plates, an unhinged tool box, battered appliances and a bicycle with training wheels.
“My 3-year-old daughter Mercedes said the fireworks came and burned our house down,” Witt said. “It was really devastating to her and I didn’t expect that. She’s been talking about it ever since.”
While Witt said most everything can be replaced, he’s sad about two sentimental treasures — his late father’s mementos and a trunk of trinkets from Japan.
“I lost the things that really meant him to me,” Witt said, his words practically a whisper. “Like his awards as a Boy Scout, his old uniform, an old compass, and an old set of binoculars.”
Mel Witt passed in 2014.
The cherished items from Japan come from Scott Witt’s days there as a young missionary in his early 20s from 1990 to 1992. He paused, reeling them in from memory, “a flag of Japan, postcards and personal letters.”
But when Witt talked about his losing his tools, he became even more disheartened. He said it was like losing a bit of his identity.
“I’ve always been the person who fixed things,” Witt said. “So that’s part of what I feel is me, and now I don’t have any tools.”
For all they’ve lost, Witt, 46, and Megan, 38, remain upbeat and say they’re young enough to rebuild their home.
When they reflect on the wildfires, Megan said she’s grateful they made it out with their lives because they had a short window of time to escape.
“The neighbors, one block down, said the fire came probably about 15 minutes after we left,” she said. “I thought we had more time, but we really didn’t.”
Witt paused, adjusting his glasses. He took a deep breath as he considered the menacing firestorm, the one that swallowed whole neighborhoods, the one that had him dodging flames on his motorcycle.
“I don’t regret at all getting out of there quickly,” he said. “I didn’t save anything, but what I did save was my family and those babies.”