It was a typical weekend. Dr. Sean Wilson, a Santa Rosa dentist, had enjoyed a weekend of wine tasting, dinners out and seeing friends. By late Sunday he was relaxing in the Wikiup home he’d owned since 2005.
“That’s the calmest time of the week,” Wilson, 50, said. “I kick back, watch TV, think about the coming week.”
Then, suddenly, life ceased being ordinary.
“First thing was that I smelled smoke,” Wilson said. “Then a bit later I heard about the fire in Calistoga. I wasn’t worried, because it was miles away, but an hour or two later my parents were evacuating from Fountain Grove. So it was getting closer. I still wasn’t super concerned until around 3 a.m., when I walked outside and the entire eastern skyline was glowing red. I knew I had to get out of there.”
Around this time police and fire department personnel began working the road below his house, asking residents to evacuate their homes. Wilson — who lives on a steep, heavily wooded hillside — couldn’t see them, but heard their loudspeakers. He loaded up his truck and drove downhill, parking at a nearby golf course.
When the approaching fire forced another retreat, Wilson found a spot near the Redwood Highway. Sitting in his truck through the night, he kept watch on his hillside as the fire grew closer, bigger, and brighter. “Huge flames were burning at the top of our hill,” he said. “I was sure my house wouldn’t make it.”
At sunrise, in air choked with smoke, Wilson walked to the Wikiup Tennis and Swim Club. Transformed into a firefighting staging area, it provided a good view of flames rising from trees around his home. The road uphill was blocked off, “but I had to know for sure about my house, so I hiked up the hillside. To my amazement, the house was still standing. Stuff was burning all around, and I could see the hillside on fire at the back of the property.”
Wilson didn’t plan to stick around. “I just wanted to run up, see the house, and jam back out,” he said. “But leaves were burning on my neighbor Val’s property, and fire was coming down the hill. I had to do something. I wasn’t frightened — it’s not like I was surrounded by 40-foot flames. I knew I could run out if I had to.
“So I set to work. I tried the hose, but water had been shut off. All I knew to do was grab a rake and shovel to create a fire break, and I also found a 5-gallon jug of drinking water. Those were my tools.”
Wilson began running ceaselessly between his own property and that of his neighbors, struggling up and down the steep hill to create fire breaks, rake leaves away from flames, shovel dirt on coals and judiciously pour from his tiny hoard of water. Each time he stifled one outbreak, flames popped up somewhere else, and he’d run to smother them. After a couple of hours he’d succeeded in keeping fire away from the property of several neighbors, but he was running out of steam.
“The fire didn’t stop,” he said. “It just kept going and going. I was exhausted.”