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Heroic firefight spares Santa Rosa’s Oakmont retirement community from devastation

It had all the elements of an impending disaster.

Wind-whipped flames bearing down from the east were joined by blazes in Annadel-Trione State Park to the southwest and fires burning on Melita Road to the north. Together, the fire and the smoke and the chaos threatened to hem in the nearly 5,000 residents of the Oakmont Village senior living community.

As they found their way to Highway 12, thousands of cars jammed the same corridor nearly three years to the day from the night the Oct. 8, 2017 wildfires raged in Sonoma County, leveling more than 5,300 homes.

The Glass fire’s approach, in the dark of night, stirred up the horror of 2017 for many Santa Rosans whose memories of the disaster are never far.

And yet, with fire surrounding Oakmont on three sides, firefighters defied the odds late Sunday night and early Monday morning, sparing the retirement community from widespread losses by putting themselves between homes and the advancing flames.

“Awesome courage and bravery — just way, way above the call of duty, way above what any normal person would expect,” said Oakmont homeowner Steve Spanier, who is also the president of the neighborhood association. “I’m really at a loss for words to express our gratitude to the first responders for taking the stand that they did.”

The community did not escape unscathed. A triplex unit on White Oak Drive south of Fairfield Drive was destroyed. Two homes on Stone Bridge Road that abutted an open, grass field on the northwestern corner of the community were taken. But in both cases, neighboring homes on all sides were untouched.

“I am so grateful to the firefighters for holding the lines and for saving the remaining structures in Oakmont,” said Sonoma County Supervisor Susan Gorin, who was one of two Oakmont residents to lose a home in the 2017 Nuns fire.

Her home, which backs up to the Trione-Annadel State Park that began burning Monday morning, is just now being rebuilt. She lives in a rental now, also in Oakmont. When she joined thousands of Oakmont residents, including 120 from the Oakmont Gardens assisted living center, amid another evacuation under a fire-orange sky, Gorin couldn’t help but let her mind wander while stuck in traffic.

“I said goodbye to my rental house, and I said, ‘Please don’t let me lose another house,’” Gorin said.

As fire descended upon east Santa Rosa, the now familiar “all call” signal went out, summoning all available firefighting units to the Safeway parking lot at Highway 12 and Calistoga Road. Many of those units were sent to protect Oakmont.

Santa Rosa Assistant Fire Marshall Paul Lowenthal said the count was likely in the dozens, with some coming from as far away as Glendale — a seven hour drive from Oakmont.

In the early hours Monday morning, fire engines and crews moved house to house, particularly on Oakmont’s northern edge, putting out spot fires in landscaping and along fence lines. As flames dazzled hundreds of feet above rooftops while taking apart mature canopy, firefighters went to work with hoses, shovels and chainsaws. They repeated the pattern again, and again, and again, holding off the Glass fire for hours before it would finally take its first structure after 4 a.m. Monday.

Capt. Nick Gabbard of the Central Marin Fire Department estimates he got to the Oakmont area by 10:30 p.m. Sunday, and he drove a 2,000-gallon water tender along Highway 12 dousing flames and soaking the ground. By Monday morning, crews were mopping up a small fire at a home on Oakhurst Place that they contained to backyard greenery and some raised garden beds. No structural damage.

Lowenthal said firefighters hoped for success, but they also knew there was potential for devastation. A critical factor, he said, was the early call to evacuate residents so firefighters could focus on protecting homes.

The 120 residents of the Oakmont Gardens assisted living center were a key evacuation group, and all would eventually make it out by 1:30 a.m. With flames licking the top of Sugarloaf Ridge to the east, residents stood in line after midnight outside Oakmont Gardens, many leaning on walkers as they awaited their chance to board a fleet of Santa Rosa city buses. They eventually filled five full-sized buses, which ferried them to safety at the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Hall.

Others did not wait for orders to evacuate, choosing to leave earlier in the evening as news spread of the fire burning on the other side of the Mayacamas.

While fire crews worked, dozens of police officers from Santa Rosa and Petaluma went door-to-door in an effort to ensure no senior residents were left behind.

“Our concern is always a repeat of 2017,” Lowenthal said. “Where residents are trying to evacuate as the fire is moving into the neighborhood.”

That did not happen with the Glass fire, leaving firefighters with one, daunting task: again protecting thousands of homes from a wave of wind-driven wildfire.

“There was definitely some extreme fire behavior in and around homes in Oakmont,” Lowenthal said, blaming erratic winds. “We had 200- to 300-foot flame lengths, with ember cast raining down into the neighborhood. I thought for sure we were going to end up with a significant number of structures destroyed.”

Given the conditions firefighters faced, the outcome could have been disastrous, Gabbard acknowledged.

“I think that’s fair to say,” he said.

Nevertheless, the Glass fire took only two homes and the triplex on White Oak Drive.

Crews had teamed up on the blaze after the early group of firefighters were called off to tackle a different fire, Santa Rosa Capt. Brian Staby said. At 10 a.m. Monday, firefighters were drenching the triplex to keep embers and flames from reaching neighboring homes.

“That’s the problem with a lot of these fires we are having,” Staby said. “We don’t put stuff out because something else comes along and it slowly starts burning. Before, we’d make sure it’s completely out before we ever left. Circumstances are different now.”

That was evident up and down Highway 12 on Monday. Small fires and bits of flame burned up and down the corridor. Fence posts were ablaze and small bushes were on fire. One one stretch of the highway, support posts for the guardrail were burned to the ground, leaving twisted, stretches of metal in smoking ribbons along the road.

But the community, drenched in a thick, acrid smoke Monday, was largely unscathed, marking a high point in firefighting efforts that have been stretched thin as scores of fires burn.

Fire officials credited residents for their part in saving their own neighborhood. They heeded evacuation warnings, and their adherence to Oakmont’s notoriously finicky landscaping requirements helped limit the chance that fire would take a foothold.

“Had those homes not had that defensible space, and had people not evacuated and/or waited until the last minute, we could have had a much different situation,” Lowenthall said.

Those words struck a chord for Spanier, the homeowners association president, who said he was so proud of the community.

“For people to recognize the risk to their homes and their neighbors, and do what they did, it does warm my heart — and that’s an understatement,” Spanier said.

You can reach Staff Writers Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or tyler.silvy@pressdemocrat.com and Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com.

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