Fran Bengsston’s Sunday evening was a quiet one.
Sitting in her Coffey Park home, Bengsston and her boyfriend clinked champagne glasses after making good progress on their weeks-long roofing project, and then went to bed.
Around 11 p.m. they awakened, smelling smoke. Glancing outside the window, they saw the wind blowing hard.
“I thought it was a grass fire,” said Bengsston. “My boyfriend went outside to check the roof, because we still had a few roofing materials up on top of the house.”
The couple looked online and read that the fire might be in Kenwood, so Bengsston’s boyfriend decided to head home to his house in the Annadel Heights area to turn the sprinklers on and make sure everything checked out.
“I closed all my doors and windows and went back to sleep,” said Bengsston, completely unaware she would be evacuated hours later.
Around 2:40 a.m., Bengsston heard a loud knocking at her door. She didn’t immediately recognize the young man. It was her new neighbor, Donny Riveras, at the door.
Riveras, 21, had only moved into the neighborhood a little over week prior. Bengsston and her boyfriend would see him coming and going while working on the roof. He lived across the street, and she had meant to take a bottle of wine over to welcome him to the neighborhood. But here he was, standing on her doorstep in the middle of the night.
Riveras and his roommate, Jon Edmonds, had been up for nearly two hours, having been awakened by the gusts of wind.
“We immediately called 911 and they told us there were 10 fires in Santa Rosa,” said Riveras. “But [said] none were in our area and told us to call back if we saw flames.”
Riveras and his roommate didn’t wait. Edmonds told his girlfriend to pack up their dogs and head to safety. Riveras decided to drive around to find out if he could see anything.
“I got into my truck and drove down Hopper Lane and saw the flames 100 feet away from the park,” said Riveras. “So I immediately started evacuating neighbors.”
His first stop? Bengsston’s house across the street.
“He told me: ‘The fire is coming, you have five minutes to get out!’” said Bengsston. “He told me to head away from the park, and I couldn’t even see across the street because the smoke was so black.”
Bengsston tried twice to shut her front door against the heavy winds and finally slammed it the third time. She ran into her bedroom, quickly dressed and threw a few things into a bag.
Across the street from Bengsston, a car blew 133 feet into another neighbor’s foundation.
“I heard an explosion and I thought: ‘I’ve got to get out of here ––I can’t wait any longer,’” said Bengsston. “No one has ever seen anything like this before.”
Riveras was also hearing explosions in the distance, but kept heading down Dogwood Drive and the neighboring Mocha Drive to warn more residents. In all, he knocked on close to 100 doors.
“I just had so much adrenaline that I kind of blacked out and just started banging on people’s doors, and I could barely open my eyes because of how thick the smoke was,” said Riveras. “There were giant waves of wind that were mostly flames.”