It was quite a long time ago — 1970 — that Shirley White and her husband, Russell, managed to buy a home in wooded hills mere minutes from the heart of Santa Rosa.
The house had been built on Montecito Avenue in 1932, the same year Shirley White was born, just above McDonald Avenue and what would become the vast Grace Tract and Proctor Terrace neighborhoods. Around the house is an acre of trees and garden spaces.
For decades as they raised their family, Shirley and Russ, a career educator with the Sonoma Valley schools, savored their retreat in Montecito Heights.
Russ White died five years ago. Since then his widow, now 85, has stayed fit and youthful working the property and advocating for the environment and human rights.
“I don’t sit a lot,” she said.
Sometimes she runs. She did in the early morning of Oct 9, after being awakened by a noise she quickly determined was the falling of a large, nearby Douglas fir tree. She arose, stepped to a window in her second-floor bedroom and saw flames.
Her bedside clock said 12:10 a.m. In that instant, Shirley White was one of hundreds of thousands of Sonoma County residents still entirely unaware of the monstrous firestorm that approached from near Calistoga.
But she did know that there was a small fire in the vegetation along her driveway, and she knew the wind was blowing like crazy.
“I just tore down the stairs and grabbed the hose where I knew it was,” she said.
Dressed in her nightgown, White trained the nozzle at flames that ate at a hedge of blackberry brambles and started up into trees. She had to brace herself in the wind to keep from being toppled like the tree.
“Never have I seen wind like that,” she said. As she strained to halt the fire’s ascent into the canopy of the neighborhood’s beloved and abundant trees, her only thought was: “I’ve got to get it out because it will take the hill.”
She hadn’t dialed 911. There was no time; she’d run for the garden hose knowing that, as it was, she’d be lucky to get to the flames in time to douse them before they spread.
She’ll be forever grateful that the smell of smoke and the howling of the wind caused across-the-street neighbor Mark Quattrocchi to peer out a window and see the fire near her house.
Quattrocchi, an architect, phoned 911 and hustled across Montecito Avenue to join White. He offered to take the hose and she passed it to him.
“I just knew with those winds that I had to get it down and get it down fast,” Quattrocchi said. He struggled to knock the flames from a tree.
Other Montecito Heights neighbors had gathered when an engine and a ladder truck from the Santa Rosa Fire Department pulled up.
Firefighters shone light on the scene and saw what had happened: When wind toppled the fir in the yard of White’s next-door neighbor, the tree had snapped a power line.
Aware of the danger posed by the line, firefighters shouted to White and Quattrocchi. White remembers them yelling, “Get back! Get away!”