Self-described night owl Heidi Kulick was watching TV in the wee hours of the morning Oct. 9, following sketchy news reports of a fire blowing through Santa Rosa’s northeast side. Still, she wasn’t too concerned for her own safety until an urgent bulletin broke into the regular programming with word that the fire had leaped over the freeway.
Most people would have jumped out of bed and into action. But Kulick is a paraplegic. Born with a spinal defect, she has been bed-bound with associated health problems for two years.
Her housemate and helper Ed Corn fortunately, was awakened just then by a commotion outside their three-bedroom home on Coffey Lane, where the fire was headed.
“I looked out and everybody was in their cars already evacuating, honking their horns. Bushes appeared to be just randomly bursting into flames,” said Corn, who raced into Kulick’s room, grabbed her wheelchair and said, “We’ve got to get you out of here.”
With fire already bearing down on the neighborhood, the 59-year-old professional gardener herded Kulick’s cat Missy into a carrier and threw some blankets into a bathtub and ran water over them; he figured he might need them and feared the water would shut off.
“I just knew that we would make it if I could get her to the park,” he said. “It’s all green. There are no trees.”
Corn wheeled his friend, still in her nightgown, directly across the street and into Coffey Park, where he left her in the middle of the lawn before racing back to the house he get his dog, Gypsy, a blonde husky mix, and then come back with the car.
But the electricity went out in the house, and the frightened dog hid under the porch.
“The window blew out in the kitchen and there were a thousand tiki torch flames on the back fence,” he remembered. Tar chips from the roof were flying like bullets from a machine gun. There was a 25-foot tall cobalt-and-white flame roaring beside his truck. He would have been burned up if he tried to reach it. Running out of oxygen in the house, Corn grabbed the blankets and put them over his head as he ran a gauntlet of flaming bushes on both sides just outside the door. He burned both arms on the way out.
Corn put the wet blankets over Kulick’s head and went back a third time to look for Gypsy, but found the house engulfed in flames.
By this time, anyone who was going to make it out of the neighborhood was gone and Corn and Kulick began a four-hour trip through hell’s inferno.
“There were cars exploding and pieces of buildings flying over our heads,” said Kulick, “At one point I narrowly missed getting my head hit by a gas pipe. It was like being in the center of a tornado.”
For hours, Corn wheeled Kulick through the park in what he described as “dance with the devil’s pitchfork,” moving over and over again to different corners of the park, dodging flying embers and fiery debris, or fleeing from toxic gas or searing heat as flames ripped through homes ringing the park, toppling them one by one. The park was lit only by an orange glow.