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The view of Mount St. Helena from Bud Pochini’s Christmas tree farm, Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2022, in Knights Valley is a grand vista, but five years ago the entire valley and mountainsides burned his home and trees during the Tubbs Fire. (Kent Porter/The Press Democrat)

A walk in the ashes of the Tubbs Fire: Five years after Sonoma County’s worst disaster

Lessons learned, and those still needed, in the burn scar of a historic disaster

Climate-driven hardship tends to build incrementally. But it took an enormous jump for those of us living in the North Bay five years ago, when a siege of wind-driven wildfires ended 40 human lives, destroyed more than 6,000 homes and burned close to 400 square miles — an area larger than the five boroughs of New York City.

While there were at least 10 named fires that erupted across four North Bay counties on Oct. 8 and 9, 2017, the Tubbs Fire — the most destructive in state history at the time, responsible for 22 of the deaths and 4,600 lost homes — came to stand for the wider firestorm.

Sonoma County, where the Tubbs did its worst, took the hardest blow.

On the night of Oct. 8, 2017, the Tubbs Fire raged from Calistoga to the Coffey Park neighborhood in Santa Rosa, almost 12 miles in just five hours. Here’s a look at how the fire moved, including locations that are mentioned in this story about trauma and recovery. (Dennis Bolt/Sonoma County) Parks Map
On the night of Oct. 8, 2017, the Tubbs Fire raged from Calistoga to the Coffey Park neighborhood in Santa Rosa, almost 12 miles in just five hours. Here’s a look at how the fire moved, including locations that are mentioned in this story about trauma and recovery. (Dennis Bolt/Sonoma County) Parks Map

In less than four nighttime hours, the fire roared from a quiet road in rural Calistoga to the Fountaingrove community in Santa Rosa. It vaulted the seemingly insurmountable barrier of Highway 101 — six lanes, plus median and shoulders — before it laid waste to the city neighborhood of Coffey Park.

By daybreak, it had incinerated more than 3,000 homes inside city limits, emptying large expanses of Santa Rosa of any residents, in some places for nearly a year or more.

In short, it was the fire that reset our notion of collective risk in the global climate crisis.

To find out what has changed in the five years since — what shortfalls have been resolved and which problems remain, and which questions must be answered if this region is to remain habitable in generations to come — Press Democrat reporter Phil Barber set out to retrace the 11½-mile-long path of the Tubbs Fire.

He talked to residents, firefighters, ecologists and entrepreneurs, most of them some combination of weary and hopeful, to draw lessons from wounds of the burn scar.

The ignition point: Bennett Lane

Jack Piccinini and I were parked on the shoulder of Highway 128 near Bennett Lane, just north of Calistoga, idling in a red emergency vehicle bearing the imprint of the Sebastopol Volunteer Fire Department. Piccinini, a retired Santa Rosa battalion chief, has been a member of the agency for more than 50 years.

“The origin of the Tubbs Fire was right up here,” Piccinini told me, nodding into his windshield. “It blew across the road pretty quick up here.”

Like most other fires that night across Northern California, the Tubbs began with a spark from power equipment, in this case when electrical current from a high-tension wire arced to the ground. The winds were almost supernatural, with sustained gusts of 68 mph that night and mountaintop winds measured even higher, and they overpowered utility lines — including a private electrical system on a residential property off Bennett Lane.

PG&E workers prepare to replace a power pole near the suspected origin of the Tubbs Fire on Bennett Lane north of Calistoga, Tuesday Oct. 24, 2017. (Kent Porter/The Press Democrat file)
PG&E workers prepare to replace a power pole near the suspected origin of the Tubbs Fire on Bennett Lane north of Calistoga, Tuesday Oct. 24, 2017. (Kent Porter/The Press Democrat file)

From there, the fire would roll nearly unabated over the undulations of the Mayacamas Mountains that divide Napa and Sonoma counties, progressing from sparsely populated areas to dense developments. Fire scientists have estimated the Tubbs Fire ran 230 feet per minute at its peak. It cast embers nearly a mile ahead of the main front.

Overwhelmed North Bay fire and police agencies could do nothing more than warn people to get out, trying to stay one step ahead of the flames. In many cases, residents received no warning at all, part of a systematic failure, especially in Sonoma County, that would spur a wholesale reevaluation of emergency notices from the local to state level.

Older residents of the region thought they’d never see another Hanly Fire, which had carved almost the same path in 1964. Tubbs was a reprise, but with a larger scale of devastation.

Most of those who evacuated ahead of the Tubbs Fire had little time to gather family mementos and medical documents, or sometimes even pets. They left in whatever they were wearing at the time. Others had no time even for that. They huddled in wine cellars or stood dazed in swimming pools as flames encircled them.

The fire would spawn lawsuits, legislation and life-changing appraisals. At first, there was only escape.

Rincon Ridge in Fountaingrove, Wednesday Oct. 25, 2017, in Santa Rosa, burned by the Tubbs Fire. (Kent Porter/The Press Democrat file)
Rincon Ridge in Fountaingrove, Wednesday Oct. 25, 2017, in Santa Rosa, burned by the Tubbs Fire. (Kent Porter/The Press Democrat file)
Rincon Ridge atop Fountaingrove, Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022, is mostly rebuilt, five years post Tubbs Fire. (Kent Porter/The Press Democrat)
Rincon Ridge atop Fountaingrove, Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022, is mostly rebuilt, five years post Tubbs Fire. (Kent Porter/The Press Democrat)

Piccinini, then the interim chief of the Windsor and Rincon Valley Fire districts, spent the early hours of the night of Oct. 8, at the emergency dispatch center in Santa Rosa, helping to coordinate evacuation orders for an immediately worrisome firestorm. He understood the danger when he got a call from a pair of veteran Cal Fire chiefs, Gino Degraffenreid and Greg Bertelli, not much after 10 p.m. that night.

The fire had erupted less than 30 minutes earlier.

“Gino said, ‘This is a Hanly Fire, Jack. It’s coming to Santa Rosa,’” Piccinini recounted.

And it did. But circumstances had changed by 2017. Vegetation in the North Bay had grown more chronically parched, the state having just weathered a deep drought, and the winds were fiercer. Many more people also had come to live in the outlying canyons and ravines.

Five years later, those conditions still exist. When I made a second September trip to Bennett Lane, the temperature approached 100 degrees. The sun-faded grasses looked normal enough, but the trunks of some trees still bore the evidence of a half-decade-old burn.

Though Pacific Gas and Electric Co. was not faulted by the state for starting the Tubbs — investigators determined it began with private power equipment stretching off the PG&E grid — the utility giant would ultimately include Tubbs Fire plaintiffs with victims of other 2017 and 2018 wildfire disasters in a roughly $13.5 billion settlement.

In the driveway of the hillside property at the ignition point, someone had recently spray-painted “NO PGE.” But it was no political statement, just a guide for utility workers.

Suddenly, the quiet was broken by the complaint of warning sirens in the distance.

It was a regularly scheduled test of Calistoga’s fire system. This was the only North Bay town under full mandatory evacuation during the Tubbs Fire, and two years later, the city council there voted to buy three new sirens to supplement the two it already had.

1.7 miles from ignition: Pochini Family Farm

When the winds started latticing his driveway with fallen trees, Bud Pochini knew it was time to get out. He ran his daughter, Allie, up the hill to his sister’s house, then jumped in his Knights Valley Volunteer Fire Department truck.

Pochini lives just over the hill from Calistoga, on the Sonoma County side of Highway 128 where it cuts through the mountain gap at the northern end of Napa Valley. He drove toward the fire that was being reported on his radio scanner. As he rounded a curve and his view widened, he saw a wall of flames 50-100 feet high, as tall as a five-story apartment building.

“It just started five minutes ago, and it went a mile,” he told me. “If it’s there in five minutes, people have gotta get the hell out.”

Bud and Allie, 17 at the time, spent the night driving up and down Knights Valley, a plain of vineyard land in the shadow of Mount St. Helena. They cleared the roadway of downed trees so firetrucks could get in and terrified residents could evacuate.

Pochini hadn’t really slept by 2:30 the next afternoon. The winds had long abated by then, and he and other members of the nonprofit volunteer company were finishing off a fire line at Storybook Mountain Vineyards, just uphill from his property.

Then he heard the explosion of burning gas from a propane tank below, and he knew his house was gone.

The loss was especially frustrating, Pochini told me, because he had driven by the property shortly before. He saw one firetruck in the driveway of his mother’s old house and another two just across the highway.

“You got this?” he asked an out-of-area firefighter.

It was under control. But Cal Fire commanders pulled the helpers to another location, leaving the Pochini property, which his parents bought in 1974. The remnants of the fire crept around the hillside until it had engulfed the two houses at the site, along with Bud’s welding shop and several outbuildings.

“That’s one thing that can use some work,” Pochini said. “They need to leave someone behind just to watch for stuff like that. Because they left these properties….”

He began to point around the immediate area, counting up the losses — “one, two … probably a dozen houses burned. And they could have stopped it here no problem.”

Now occupying the space where his family house used to stand is a double-wide trailer, Pochini’s replacement home. The Christmas trees he plants and sells are coming back strong, but other trees are suffering.

“Those two trees were totally green,” Pochini said of a couple leafless specters that once loomed over his shop and shaded it. “Now I get to spend probably $3,500 to take ’em down.”

One thing he doesn’t question, despite everything that happened five years ago, is his commitment to the volunteer fire department.

“I just look at it a little different now,” the 60-year-old Pochini said.

“Before it was like, ‘A fireman’s house burn down? Nah.’ Well, it can. That’s the different perspective. Now it’s, ‘Oh, it can happen to me.’ I’m not so comfortable once the big part of a fire has passed. Because I know one spark is all it takes to start it up again.”

4.4 miles from ignition: Pepperwood Preserve

As the Tubbs Fire barreled southwest, it found little resistance at Pepperwood Preserve, a 3,200-acre mountain refuge north of Santa Rosa that has served as a model of ecological protection and study since 1979.

Pepperwood’s oak scrubland and steep inclines are engineered to burn. And they did as midnight passed and Oct. 8 became Oct. 9.

It was two weeks after the fire before Pepperwood ecologist Michelle Halbur was able to return to her workplace.

“To my untrained eyes, it looked like a moonscape,” Halbur told me. “Everything was black. And what I really remember is how quiet it was. It wasn’t rustling grasses. There weren’t many birds at the time. It was kind of a shock.”

To Halbur’s wonder, the moonscape began to come to life almost immediately.

First to appear were the native perennial bunchgrasses, poking up from the choked soil within two or three weeks. The oak trees standing sentinel on Pepperwood’s hills, completely leaf-scorched by Tubbs, were pushing out new lime-green leaves within a month. A month after that, it was the chaparral regenerating. Some of those oily species can lie dormant in soil for 50, 60 years, waiting “like little embryos,” Halbur said, for flames to help them germinate.

Some plants took longer. The preserve’s forest habitat and some flowering bushes needed a couple years to bounce back.

But there are troubling signs at Pepperwood, too. Halbur has seen delayed tree mortality over the past couple of years, fire-wounded specimens now beset by drought, beetle infestations and intensifying heat waves.

“Where we have canopy kill (the death of tree crowns), they’re coming down more than ever,” Halbur said. “It’s rebuilding all those fuels on the ground. So if a wildfire comes through, it’ll burn really hot again.”

And two years after Tubbs, in 2019, another wildfire did come, the Kincade — Sonoma County’s largest wildland blaze on record, at 77,758 acres, twice as large as Tubbs.

The rejuvenation and wreckage have been an ongoing source of data for scientists, academics and public policy officials. Pepperwood invites agencies, such as the U.S. Geological Survey and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, to use the site as a field station and to share the preserve’s data sets.

“Everything we’re doing has pre- and post- (fire),” Halbur said. “We can look at mammals and see how they’re doing before and after a fire. Or grassland communities. Or our forests. Or breeding bird surveys.”

Now, the Pepperwood stewards have plans to ramp up the frequency of controlled burns, the fires lit to reduce underbrush and limit fuels for catastrophic blazes. They have hosted those before, directed by fire agencies. In June, Pepperwood did its own prescribed burn for the first time, a 26½-acre event overseen by assistant preserve manager Devyn Friedfel.

Charred Douglas fir remain in the Tubbs fire path at Pepperwood Preserve east of Santa Rosa, Sept. 27, 2022. (Chad Surmick/The Press Democrat)
Charred Douglas fir remain in the Tubbs fire path at Pepperwood Preserve east of Santa Rosa, Sept. 27, 2022. (Chad Surmick/The Press Democrat)

“It was big, but I think we need to go bigger,” Friedfel told me on a recent tour of the property with Pepperwood manager Michael Gillogly.

They pointed out the neatly confined contours of the controlled burn. In another area were stacks of wood collected by staff to thin out dangerously overgrown terrain. Some trees were marked with blue spray paint for removal. A couple were girdled with circular perimeter cuts; slice through an inch or two of outer bark and you’ll kill the tree by severing the tissue that carries water and nutrients from the leaves.

“These little stumps here? Those were all Doug fir trees growing. You couldn’t see from me to that tree,” Friedfel said, pointing to a specimen about 25 feet away. “You couldn’t walk through, or you’d get hit in the face. Now, there’s more nutrients and water and light for the oaks.”

There was something else that caught Piccinini’s eye when he and I drove up to Pepperwood one morning: a camera mounted on a lookout tower.

Before the fires of 2017, the ALERTWildfire system consisted of a handful of elevated cameras. Now, there are more than 700, spread across six Western states, including more than 80 in Sonoma, Napa, Marin, Mendocino and Lake counties. Many of them rotate, their footage fed to a publicly accessible website. Two of those round-the-clock lookout cameras are at Pepperwood.

Firefighters, it turns out, rely on them as much as reporters and curious residents.

“Oh yeah, it does really give us good intelligence,” Piccinini said. “The cameras you and I can look at, and the public can look at, they refresh every 15 seconds. But dispatch centers can control them. They’re actually looking live. So, if there’s a reported fire, a dispatch center can grab a camera and get a sense of whether it can turn into something or not.”

6.5 miles from ignition: Mark West Lodge

“This was just a blowtorch through here,” Piccinini said as his rig approached the old Mark West Lodge, about halfway down the east-west canyon that leads out of the mountains into Santa Rosa’s northern outskirts. “When I got to the intersection (just downhill, closer to Santa Rosa), I could see what’s going on. And I remember thinking — not knowing yet, but thinking to myself — ‘People are gonna lose their lives. I have no doubt.’”

Jack Piccinini, at the site of a home not rebuilt on Skyfarm Drive in Fountaingrove, Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022, was the interim chief of the Windsor and Rincon Valley Fire districts in 2017 when the Tubbs Fire blew through Santa Rosa and the surrounding mountain communities. (Kent Porter/The Press Democrat)
Jack Piccinini, at the site of a home not rebuilt on Skyfarm Drive in Fountaingrove, Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022, was the interim chief of the Windsor and Rincon Valley Fire districts in 2017 when the Tubbs Fire blew through Santa Rosa and the surrounding mountain communities. (Kent Porter/The Press Democrat)

As the Tubbs Fire gained momentum and funneled down Porter Creek and Mark West Springs roads, it ceased to be an advancing line in the landscape and became something more akin to a tidal wave of heat. There were twisting vortexes of fire powerful enough to toss heavy equipment around.

“In my humble opinion,” Piccinini said, “this was shocking, incredible fire behavior.”

It all came too quickly here. About half of the Tubbs Fire’s 22 casualties occurred within a half-mile of the Mark West Creek drainage, which served to funnel and intensify flames driven by hot, dry Diablo winds from the east.

New homes dot the Mark West corridor above Riebli Road, Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022, five years after the October 2017 Tubbs Fire. (Kent Porter/The Press Democrat)
New homes dot the Mark West corridor above Riebli Road, Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022, five years after the October 2017 Tubbs Fire. (Kent Porter/The Press Democrat)

Piccinini comes across as pretty unshakable, but his tone grew somber as he dredged up this memory.

Still, the site has positive meaning for him, too.

The night of the fire, a couple of sheriff’s deputies, working in the black spaces to the rear of the flames’ front wall, directed fleeing residents to gather at the lodge parking lot and wait for further instructions, rather than sending them into what could be a death trap below in Mark West Springs.

Piccinini is a big fan of that staged strategy and believes it has too often been missing from evacuation orders. In fact, as part of a Cal Fire team studying tree mortality issues in the western Sierra Nevada in 2016, he helped put together a template that local fire agencies could fill in, allowing them to create plans involving temporary, incremental evacuation sites.

The model, Piccinini said, gathered dust for a couple years. Then he started to hear about local units using it.

The approach paid off in 2018, as the Camp Fire leveled the town of Paradise in Butte County and killed 85 people. It might have been even worse, were it not for a couple locations where the Cal Fire incident command team set up short-term evacuation refuges, using the template Piccinini had worked on.

8.1 miles from ignition: Bastoni Ranch

In 1964, as the Hanly Fire approached from the northeast, Pasquale Bastoni loaded up his pickup with a few belongings and told his wife and kids to skedaddle down Riebli Road. They made it to the first turn before the fire crossed the pavement in front of them. Albertina Bastoni backed up the truck and parked it in the barn, and the family weathered the conflagration at home.

Fifty-three years later, Martha (Bastoni) Messana — who was 12 years old during the Hanly Fire — lived through a sequel.

“I opened the front door, because I was thinking, ‘We made it through 1964. It might just, you know…’” Messana, 70, said, recalling the night of the Tubbs Fire. “I opened that door and all I saw was the raining embers. And the wind just blew me back. Then I wasn’t gonna argue about leaving.”

About this series

October marks the fifth year since the North Bay firestorm that devastated the parts of Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and Lake counties, destroying about 6,200 homes and claiming 40 lives. Over the next five weeks, a team of Press Democrat reporters, photographers and editors will revisit those harrowing days and weeks with an eye toward how the disaster impacted our region and how we come to grips with the inevitability of a future bout with catastrophic wildfire.

Week 1: How living with the reality of fire has changed us and the land we live on.

Week 2: Despite a $13.5 billion fund set aside by the courts for fire victims, many have yet to see what they’re owed.

Week 3: Fire took a physical and emotional toll on everyone, especially children.

Week 4: Tales of tragedy, tales of heroism. Where are they now?

Week 5: What we’ve learned, and how we’ll move forward.

If you have a story to share, please email pdnews@pressdemocrat.com.

She and her husband, Russ Messana, got out at around 2:15 a.m. They lost three barns, a pump house and several vehicles. But just as in ’64, the family home was spared.

“Almost 100% of our neighbors lost their homes,” noted Russ, 70, and Martha’s husband of 51 years. “Someone said there were 477 houses in this vicinity — I don’t know what a ‘vicinity’ is — and five houses survived.”

About 1,600 homes were destroyed in the greater Mark West area, including the Larkfield and Wikiup communities in the flatlands along Old Redwood Highway and Highway 101.

The path of the 2017 Tubbs Fire roared west from Mount St. Helena, top left, through the Mark West corridor and leveled nearly every home as far as the eye can see in Larkfiled and Mark West Estates and Fountaingove, top, Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022.  Old Redwood Highway and Mark West Springs Road crisscross at the bottom. (Kent Porter/The Press Democrat)
The path of the 2017 Tubbs Fire roared west from Mount St. Helena, top left, through the Mark West corridor and leveled nearly every home as far as the eye can see in Larkfiled and Mark West Estates and Fountaingove, top, Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022. Old Redwood Highway and Mark West Springs Road crisscross at the bottom. (Kent Porter/The Press Democrat)

The Messanas were lucky, but they had improved their odds, too.

Russ, perpetually dressed in striped Bastoni Vineyards work shirt and sweat-stained Bastoni ball cap, keeps the weeds and grasses deeply mowed near the house and between rows of vines, and he pays workers to weed-whack hillsides on their 40-acre property. The Messanas rebuilt their barns with metal, and clad the new pump house in fireproof Hardie board.

Russ bought a huge lift a few months ago and uses it to trim dying branches from tall trees.

The Messanas also have two fixed 10,000-gallon water tanks, with enough pressure to shoot a real fire hose if need be. That water delivery system came in handy for the entire community during the Tubbs Fire.

Russ reentered the burn zone after 2-3 days to keep an eye on his property. First responders didn’t give him a hard time. In fact, they brought him groceries, because Messana was filling their trucks daily with water from his well. He also rode around with a 50-gallon sprayer on his agile ATV, wetting hot spots under the watchful eyes of firefighters.

There are times when residents can help fire teams in evacuation zones, Piccinini acknowledged. But sizing them up during a calamity can be tricky.

“We totally understand there’s gonna be a lot of Russes out there, that are in good position, good health, good environment — well, a good spot in a lousy environment, I should say,” Piccinini explained as we sat at the Messanas’ dining table.

“Where with other people we’ll say, ‘You need to leave. This is not gonna work out for you.’”

Piccinini has worked fires — not the Tubbs, he emphasized — where residents were too stubborn.

“What’s really frustrating is when we get a call from someone who refused to leave, and now they’re panicked,” he said. “Now we have to commit resources and, instead of fighting fire, go back to get them out.”

Though the century-old Bastoni house still stands after two major fires, the Messanas know they live in an area of elevated risk. Riebli Road perches on the hyphen of wildland-urban interface.

When I asked whether they have entertained thoughts of moving away, Martha quickly quashed the notion. Her family has too much history here. Her grandparents bought this parcel in 1905, when Riebli was a dirt road with gates between adjacent properties. This is where her extended family always gathered for reunions, weddings and basement baptisms.

Sun sets on the at Bastoni Ranch during a mid September night harvest along Riebli Road in Santa Rosa, Monday, Sept. 12, 2022. Russ and Martha Messana’s mowed vineyards are credited with helping to save their historic home during the Tubbs Fire in 2017, although the two barns did burn they have been replaced with metal structures. (Chad Surmick/The Press Democrat)
Sun sets on the at Bastoni Ranch during a mid September night harvest along Riebli Road in Santa Rosa, Monday, Sept. 12, 2022. Russ and Martha Messana’s mowed vineyards are credited with helping to save their historic home during the Tubbs Fire in 2017, although the two barns did burn they have been replaced with metal structures. (Chad Surmick/The Press Democrat)

This land defines her. But it isn’t just that.

“Who would have thought the fire would cross the freeway and burn down Coffey Park?” Martha Messana said, as Piccinini nodded. “So where’s the safe spot? I’m not moving to San Francisco.”

Russ, who found second life as a grape grower after a career in biomedical engineering, wouldn’t think of objecting.

“Her roots go to China,” he said. “She’ll stay here till she dies.”

10.3 miles from ignition: Anova Santa Rosa

About 2:30 a.m., fire descended from the devastated Larkfield-Wikiup neighborhood and reached the Anova Center for Education, on the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts property.

Firefighters got to the campus’ central building before the fire, and mobilized on the roof. They opened their hoses. Water sputtered out in a trickle. Andrew Bailey, Anova’s founder and CEO, said a firefighter told him they were losing pressure a lot that night, because so much water was spilling from bare pipes in burned-down houses.

Piccinini confirmed it while chatting with Bailey and me in the Anova parking lot.

“Especially up in the Fountaingrove neighborhood, because all the homes there don’t just have normal domestic water use. They have fire sprinkler systems,” Piccinini said.

“So, when a home does burn down, you have all these open pipes running. You think, ‘OK, you have a few faucets on in a house, it’s no big deal.’ But you multiply that by the number of homes in Fountaingrove, all sharing that one water tank, and it begins to really reduce the amount of water pressure available.”

Months after the fire, Piccinini, a local firefighter since his early teenage years, would be one of the first officials to raise the alarm about the water system failure that night.

It forced first responders to retreat from Anova, and its two-story, cinder-block school building caved in, leaving a scene that student Aidan Krawchuk, now 15, described as “like seeing a cake collapse under too much weight.”

The Tubbs Fire-ravaged northeast wing of Luther Burbank Center for the Arts which was also home to Anova Center for Education's Sonoma campus, in Santa Rosa, California on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017. (Alvin Jornada/The Press Democrat file)
The Tubbs Fire-ravaged northeast wing of Luther Burbank Center for the Arts which was also home to Anova Center for Education's Sonoma campus, in Santa Rosa, California on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017. (Alvin Jornada/The Press Democrat file)

Children all over the North Bay were imprinted by these fires. But Tubbs may have been particularly hard on Anova students, and not just the 10 who lost their homes.

This place is a rarity and refuge — a privately run nonprofit that educates public school children on the autism spectrum. Anova is where many students are bound for four-year universities, even as teachers drape fabric over the fluorescent fixtures — aquarium scenes, rainbow flags, muted blues — because some of those kids don’t do well with harsh lighting.

“A big thing for this population is routine and schedule,” said Erin Peterson, a behavioral analyst at Anova. “So when your school burns down and it’s complete chaos, those routines and schedules get disrupted. That was obviously really hard. Regression was severe in a lot of our students.”

With no cafeteria to eat in, students Abraham Powell, Aidan Krawchuck, JoAna Reid and Kristopher Hurst find a spot on a table to eat lunch outside their classroom at Anova School in Larkfield, Aug. 29, 2022. (Chad Surmick/The Press Democrat)
With no cafeteria to eat in, students Abraham Powell, Aidan Krawchuck, JoAna Reid and Kristopher Hurst find a spot on a table to eat lunch outside their classroom at Anova School in Larkfield, Aug. 29, 2022. (Chad Surmick/The Press Democrat)

JoAna Reid, 10 years old at the time, didn’t believe it when her mom told her the school had burned. They drove over to see the wreckage. What Reid remembers most clearly are the animals — a displaced fox in the rubble of her old classroom, aimless birds and a long line of ants.

“They were all going one direction, and carrying one item each,” Reid told me, recalling the insects as we walked a lap around the campus. “I was like, ‘I guess they’re moving.’ And I would, too, if my house burned down.”

Reid is delightfully chatty and unfiltered, and she admitted to feeling awful after the fire. To process her emotions, she wrote of a castle that was burned down by a dragon made of flames. (The old building always reminded her of a castle.) The principal in the story fought back with a flaming sword propelled by phoenix wings.

Anova’s old mascot was a dragon. The new one is a phoenix.

After Tubbs, Anova’s approximately 130 students were dispersed to three separate sites. They remained in those locations for several months, then returned to Luther Burbank Center.

Therapist Lawrence Buot, center, leads a life skills class in making grilled cheese sandwiches at Anova School in Larkfield, Aug. 29, 2022. (Chad Surmick/The Press Democrat)
Therapist Lawrence Buot, center, leads a life skills class in making grilled cheese sandwiches at Anova School in Larkfield, Aug. 29, 2022. (Chad Surmick/The Press Democrat)

It wasn’t the same.

Gone was that neo-castle with its twisting staircases, the 450-person auditorium and expansive atrium. Five years later, Anova Santa Rosa is a hub of activity, but most students still learn in a bland settlement of portable trailers on the former school parking lot. A line of fire-scarred redwood trees reminds older kids of the 2017 upheaval.

Bailey is raising money to build a 3½-acre campus alongside the Anova offices, near the county airport. The project will take years, which frustrates the CEO.

“Our belief is that parking lots are made for cars, not students,” Bailey said.

11.3 miles from ignition: Shelbourne Way in Coffey Park

In a night of cascading shocks, the Tubbs Fire managed an exclamation point. Hours into its chaotic rampage, it flung airborne embers over the six lanes of Highway 101 and its frontage roads into Coffey Park, a middle-class neighborhood carved out of farmland four decades ago that had never considered itself vulnerable to wildfires.

The Coffey Park area of Santa Rosa, reduced to rubble, Wednesday Oct. 25, 2017, by the Tubbs Fire. Hopper Road is on the right, Dogwood Drive is in the middle. (Kent Porter/The Press Democrat file)
The Coffey Park area of Santa Rosa, reduced to rubble, Wednesday Oct. 25, 2017, by the Tubbs Fire. Hopper Road is on the right, Dogwood Drive is in the middle. (Kent Porter/The Press Democrat file)
Mature trees around homes, bottom right, are some of the few structures not burned during the 2017 Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park. With Hopper Avenue at right and Coffey Lane in the middle, five years post 2017 Tubbs Fire shows hundreds of homes have been rebuilt in the community. (Kent Porter/The Press Democrat)
Mature trees around homes, bottom right, are some of the few structures not burned during the 2017 Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park. With Hopper Avenue at right and Coffey Lane in the middle, five years post 2017 Tubbs Fire shows hundreds of homes have been rebuilt in the community. (Kent Porter/The Press Democrat)

It was a nightmare for fleeing residents as their cars crawled forward through panic-crowded streets dotted with basketball hoops and Halloween decorations.

On a recent September morning, Piccinini sat behind the wheel of his rig on the eastern fringe of Coffey Park and talked to me about fuel breaks — the lines carved into terrain by hand crews to take away an approaching fire’s fuel and halt its advance. These breaks have, at times, been a source of debate in public forums, with safety advocates butting heads with environmentalists decrying the earthen scars, scraped down to bare soil.

Piccinini wonders if the argument is moot at this point, after seeing the Tubbs’ wind-borne jump.

“What would this fuel break look like? No fuel, say, for 100 yards wide?” he said. “OK, well, what is that right there?”

He pointed to the blur of cars on Highway 101, a couple hundred yards away. We were in the parking lot of what, until Oct. 9, 2017, was a Kmart department store.

“All those cars are driving on a fuel break,” he continued. “And yet …”

And yet, the fire kept on its advance, extending hours of terror and years of headaches for residents in Coffey Park, where about 1,400 homes were lost. As the winds subsided Oct. 9 and daylight filtered through an orange haze, many returned to take in a terrible wasteland, one of the most heartbreaking scenes of the firestorm.

Today, at the tip of a quiet cul-de-sac there, is a microcosm of potential fire outcomes.

In one wedge of the Shelbourne Way bubble is an empty lot, formerly a two-story home. Next to the lot is a brand-new house with a FOR SALE sign out front; that family rebuilt, but ultimately decided to sell. Across a back fence, meanwhile, is a house that withstood the flames.

Sofi Pardo, 17, helped her mom and dad, Sandra and Oscar, with family dinner in their rebuilt Coffey Park home in Santa Rosa, Monday, Sept. 12, 2022. (Kent Porter/The Press Democrat)
Sofi Pardo, 17, helped her mom and dad, Sandra and Oscar, with family dinner in their rebuilt Coffey Park home in Santa Rosa, Monday, Sept. 12, 2022. (Kent Porter/The Press Democrat)
In Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park community at their rebuilt home, Oscar Pardo talked with his son, Esteban, as the teen loaded up his belongings before leaving for college, Sunday, Sept. 18, 2022. Esteban’s sister, Sofi, helped out. The Pardo family was on the extreme fringe of the Tubbs Fire, losing their home to the flames. (Kent Porter/The Press Democrat)
In Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park community at their rebuilt home, Oscar Pardo talked with his son, Esteban, as the teen loaded up his belongings before leaving for college, Sunday, Sept. 18, 2022. Esteban’s sister, Sofi, helped out. The Pardo family was on the extreme fringe of the Tubbs Fire, losing their home to the flames. (Kent Porter/The Press Democrat)

And forming one cornerstone of the cul-de-sac is the home of Oscar and Sandra Pardo and their three children, Esteban, Amara and Sofi. They evacuated around 2:15 a.m. that night, and never again saw the house they loved.

But the Pardos have fared better than most fire refugees, virtually every step of the way. They quickly found a Rincon Valley rental through an old friend, and almost immediately connected with the contractor who would take on reconstruction.

Oscar Pardo also happens to be an insurance attorney. He was uniquely equipped to understand the path that lay ahead. (In June, he was elected as a Sonoma County Superior Court judge.) He kept meticulous records, and the Pardos were able to avoid the maddening hang-ups with insurance, permits and shady or unreliable contractors they heard about from so many others in Coffey Park.

Still, the past five years have not been easy. Sandra and Sofi, who was 12 when the fire wiped out their neighborhood, went through extensive counseling to deal with their post-disaster anxiety.

Sofi remembers having trouble falling asleep at night when they moved back after 22 months in the rental; the view outside her bedroom window was a scorched-dead tree. Sandra, a county-employed social worker, was diagnosed with PTSD by her Kaiser doctor, and took medication for a while. She doesn’t feel anywhere close to shedding the fears that came upon her in October 2017.

“I will never be the same after that fire,” Sandra Pardo said. “I used to love the month of September. No longer. Climate change has changed all of that. Any type of wind, the hair on the back of my neck stands up. That usually happens the beginning of September, or October. Because it can happen again.”

The Pardos offered me a cold mineral water as we sat around their dining table and chatted a few weeks ago. Outside, it was 106 degrees, part of a heat wave that would shatter records in the North Bay and across the state.

To a person, the family members are certain they did the right thing in rebuilding. It was a surprisingly seamless process, and they now own a home likely worth twice as much as the one it replaced.

Whether Santa Rosa is still the right place for them is another question altogether.

On one hand, they agreed, Coffey Park has become much closer since the fire.

Oscar’s connection with most neighbors was once limited to a “California wave” in passing, he said. Now people stop and talk on the street, and families exchange phone numbers for emergencies and get together for cookouts.

But the Pardos mention other weighty factors that would likely be echoed by anyone who lives in this rapidly evolving, progressively less hospitable region.

The things we love about the area still greet us every day. But so do the desiccated hills, downed branches redefined as fuel, calls for water rationing and the feeling that clenches your stomach anytime a high-low siren interrupts a dry, windy night.

It may be too much for Sofi Pardo, now 17.

“I know we built this beautiful house and have all these connections,” she said. “But the same thing that happened earlier, it can be taken away so fast. I don’t like that type of uncertainty. I don’t like our whole family being in jeopardy all the time. It’s super unsettling.

“This is not a place I can see myself living comfortably, because there are always new factors changing our environment here.”

Epilogue: Chasing an illusion

It isn’t much of an exaggeration to say that Jack Piccinini had spent his life training for the night of Oct. 8, 2017.

Major North Bay fires from 2017 firestorm

October 2017 firestorm

Atlas Fire: Napa and Solano counties

51,624 acres burned; six fatalities

781 structures destroyed, 120 damaged

Cause: Faulty utility equipment

Nuns Fire: Napa and Sonoma counties

(merged with five smaller fires)

56,556 acres burned, three fatalities

1,355 structures destroyed

Cause: Trees falling on power lines

Redwood Valley Fire: Mendocino County

36,523 acres burned, nine fatalities

545 structures destroyed

Cause: Trees falling on power lines

Tubbs Fire: Sonoma and Napa counties

36,807 acres burned, 22 fatalities

5,634 structures destroyed

Cause: Sparks from electrical line on private property

(PG&E has accepted responsibility)

Additional named fires:

Pocket (Sonoma County); Sulphur (Lake County); 37 (Sonoma County)

Raised by a single mom on a ranch near Sebastopol, he gravitated to the men who felt most like fathers to him — the volunteers of the Sebastopol Fire Department. By the time he was 14, he was hosing down grass fires. He fought his first structure fire at 15 and drove his first firetruck the same year, before he even had a driver’s license.

Piccinini went on to spend 41 years with the Santa Rosa Fire Department, 32 of them as a battalion chief. But those credentials did not adequately prepare him for an unimaginable night in October.

“Would I have ever dreamed I’d be in the parking lot of what was then Kmart, fighting fire and having to yell at my counterparts because the wind was blowing so damn hard, then to look over my shoulder to see the Kmart was on fire?” Piccinini said, sitting in the same lot, now blighted by chain link fence and weeds.

“Even with how long I’ve been in fire service, and how much I’ve seen in that time, I never would have predicted that.”

Piccinini still expends a lot of effort thinking about unplanned fire, its origins and effects, and how to mitigate it. But he has been in the field long enough to know that fire can never be tamed. He wants people to harden their properties. He wants evacuation routes and emergency warning systems to be well conceived.

Retired Rincon Valley/Windsor fire chief Jack Piccinini Thursday, April 5, 2018 stood on the edge of Fountaingrove when the Tubbs Fire crested Foothill Ranch and Cresta Ridge, background, last October. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2018
Retired Rincon Valley/Windsor fire chief Jack Piccinini Thursday, April 5, 2018 stood on the edge of Fountaingrove when the Tubbs Fire crested Foothill Ranch and Cresta Ridge, background, last October. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2018

It will save lives.

But none of it can lower the level of risk to zero, not in a land of perpetual drought and advancing climate change.

“We create these illusions we can make everything 100% foolproof,” Piccinini said. “And it’s just not going to be the case.”

In 2017, Phil Barber was living in Napa and writing sports columns for The Press Democrat. He covered a Raiders game in Oakland on Oct. 8 of that year, then drove home to what would become a night of fierce winds, emergency alerts and glowing red hilltops on both sides of Napa Valley. The Press Democrat news department recruited Barber to cover the fire from Calistoga, the only North Bay city under complete mandatory evacuation that fall. In 2020, he joined the news team permanently. You can reach him at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

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