Northern California fire survivors and victims couldn’t get past garage doors

After her own harrowing experience in October’s firestorm, a Santa Rosa woman is lobbying government officials to require backup batteries on garage doors, which impeded the escape of several fire victims.|

As Santa Rosa resident Cheryl Diehm raced to escape her Oakmont home in the first hours of October’s deadly firestorm, she encountered an unexpected obstacle: Her garage door would not open. The power was out, the electricity cut off after nearby blazes had toppled utility lines.

Diehm, 69, pulled the cord designed to bypass the door’s electronic system so she could open the door manually. But when she attempted to pull up the heavy wooden door, she could only lift it about 2 feet off the ground.

“I put the garage door down and repeated the whole process two or three times,” Diehm said. “I could get it only 2 feet, and I couldn’t get it to budge any further than that. This is a garage door that I have gotten up in the past.”

Thankfully for Diehm, a Kenwood couple fleeing the fire stopped and - with difficulty - helped her raise the door, allowing her to drive out with her two cats and pick up a ?90-year old neighbor on the way.

It was an unsettling experience for Diehm, a former district aide for Rep. Mike Thompson and veteran of North Bay political circles. Many of her neighbors in the Santa Rosa retirement community encountered similar difficulties, she said, prompting her to buy a backup battery for her own home and embark of late on a personal lobbying campaign, urging federal, state and local officials to consider how they might encourage widespread use of backup batteries in garages.

Had flames charted a different course that night - laying waste to Oakmont the way they did to Fountaingrove and Coffey Park - Diehm isn’t sure she could have made it out without a car.

“I’ve walked with a cane for years,” she said. “I don’t know what would have happened to me. I just know that I’m never going to outrun a fire.”

Among the 44 people who died in Northern California during the devastating wildfires that erupted Oct. 8, at least five did not or could not get out of their garages.

Santa Rosa resident Carmen McReynolds, 82, a retired doctor, was found dead inside her Mercedes convertible parked inside the garage of her Fountaingrove home. Her nephew, Gabriel Coke, told the Los Angeles Times that without power, her automatic garage door wouldn’t have opened, and she may not have had the strength to lift it manually.

LeRoy and Donna Halbur of Santa Rosa, both 80, died at their hillside home in Larkfield, LeRoy in the driveway and Donna in the car parked in the garage.

Margaret Stephenson, 86, of Redwood Valley in Mendocino County, was fleeing through her garage when she was overtaken by fire.

In Santa Rosa’s Fountaingrove neighborhood, Helen Hung, 76, tried to open the garage door but couldn’t because of the loss of power, and she was unable to open it with the manual lever, either, according to her granddaughter. Hung’s husband, Tak-Fu Hung, 101, died in their home after he told his wife to escape on foot without him. She survived the night hunkered down in a neighbor’s driveway but was badly burned.

Paul Lowenthal, Santa Rosa’s assistant fire marshal, acknowledged that officials had discussed garage door safety improvements as one of many possible areas to examine in the wake of the disaster. But he wasn’t sure exactly how large a problem it was for those fleeing the fires.

“It’s not uncommon after a large-scale incident or disaster that lessons are learned,” Lowenthal said. “Unfortunately, sometimes it takes a tragic event to see what can be done to prevent something like that from happening in the future. We’re not by any means at the point where we’re rushing to make immediate changes.”

It’s not clear whether backup batteries could have saved any victims, but policymakers are considering making them a requirement, at least in certain areas, perhaps as part of a building code change.

“They’re not that expensive, and they can save lives,” said Santa Rosa Councilman Jack Tibbetts. “I think if people had them in this fire, the death toll would not be as high as it was. I feel strongly about it.”

Tibbetts plans to ask city staff to look into the backup-battery requirement at Tuesday’s City Council meeting, he said.

Gene Radin, president of a Santa Rosa garage door and gate company, said he charges about $150 to install a backup garage door battery, if the motor can accept it. Diehm said she paid $500 because she had to get a new motor for the door as well; her old one wasn’t compatible.

Not all garages are equipped to handle a backup. The doors need to have a direct current motor to accommodate the accessory, according to Radin.

“(For) a lot of the older operators, you can’t retrofit a backup battery, and even some of the newer operators don’t have that capacity,” Radin said. “It’s more important to have the door serviced so you can lift it by hand if you need to.”

Manufacturers typically recommend residents have their garage doors serviced annually, which helps ensure they can be opened if a home has no power, according to Radin. He said manufacturers and garage-door installers could comply with a backup battery requirement if it were implemented.

For state Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, the garage door question strikes a personal chord: He had to manually open his own while leaving his Silverado home during the fires.

“I’ve got an older door; it’s heavy,” Dodd said. “I was fortunate to have a friend here and we were able to get the door open. I’m not sure I would have been able to do that on my own.”

One of Dodd’s neighbors drove through their garage door to get out as the Atlas fire raged in the area, he said.

Dodd is now considering a range of possible actions, including a legislative proposal to require backup batteries be made available to anyone buying a garage door in California. He’s still examining options and “figuring out what’s appropriate,” he said.

Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins voiced preliminary support for the backup battery idea. Hopkins said she hoped to see the Board of Supervisors hold a study session about emergency planning in light of the fires - a forum where she believed the conversation about garage door safety could continue. She first raised the matter at a board meeting in October.

Some residents, especially seniors, might not have the physical ability to raise their garage door manually, but even for those who do, a battery could provide some much-needed backup during an emergency, Hopkins said.

“Think about it: Every single day, you press a button, your garage door opens. Suddenly, you’re in a moment of pure panic, you press the button and nothing happens,” she said. “There’s the physical capacity, but there’s also the mental capacity - a timing issue.”

Diehm recounted the sense of shock that set in as she was trying to escape. Afterwards, she was stunned to learn just how widespread the garage door difficulties were, she said.

“When I finally got to realize the scope of the destruction of these fires, I was shaken by people’s vulnerability - by this one thing that can be fixed by our government officials,” Diehm said. “I absolutely know that it’s no guarantee. But, just getting back to my own situation … if there happens to be another fire or even another emergency of any kind, I’m pretty much no good on foot. So it is my car or the kindness of strangers.”

You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or On Twitter @thejdmorris.

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