Residents return to rubble and recount escape from Santa Rosa’s Fountaingrove neighborhood

When a firestorm sweeps into a neighborhood and claims nearly everything, the smallest most insignificant find can elicit gratitude.

A small safe, a framed photo, a ceramic teapot, a decorative plate.

Kathryn Clickner, 66, was almost giddy when a friend turned up what looked like a small porcelain creamer. Little else remained from her home in Santa Rosa's scorched Fountaingrove neighborhood.

Clickner and her fiance visited the remains of their home Tuesday morning in search of a small safe, which they found, and her cat Chloe, a “little tiger kitty” 4 or 5 years old. The couple were scheduled to be married Sunday and had just moved into the Stony Oak Court home over the Labor Day weekend.

“I lost my cat. I don't know where she is,” said Clickner, looking out across a scene of torched redwoods and chimney ruins. “I can't believe this place.”

Clickner was among a handful of Fountaingrove residents who ventured into fire-affected neighborhoods under mandatory evacuation, hoping for the best but expecting the worst. In Fountaingrove, mostly they found the worst.

Gary Michel, 71, visited the ruins of his home, the first of four houses on Black Hawk Circle, off Stoneridge Drive, in search of his cat, Tator, a 9-year-old white and black short hair. Michel said the power went out about 1:30 a.m. and then his ex-wife called to tell him his neighborhood was under an evacuation order.

Michel said he thought the evacuation was precautionary and that he would be able to recover his cat the following day. He didn't realize the entire area would be destroyed.

“She just didn't want to come out,” he said, tearfully.

All day Tuesday, smoke rose from the ruins of Fountaingrove homes and yards. A firebrand from the remains of the initial inferno likely ignited a home on Lakepointe Circle Tuesday morning, Santa Rosa fire officials said.

The home was one of three houses on the corner with Thomas Lake Drive to survive the first wave of flames. Firefighters responded Tuesday but soon realized that the floor on the first floor was soft, indicating that the fire was consuming the home from the underneath, said Santa Rosa acting fire captain Keenan Lee.

At that point, firefighters directed their hoses on the two neighboring houses and were able to save them. Even with all the firefighters assisting with patrols in the area, Lee said, “we don't have enough resources to sit on all the houses.”

Still, most of the upscale, hilly subdivision was in ruins, especially on the north and east side.

Sonoma State University President Judy Sakaki was among scores of community officials, executives and physicians who lost their homes in Fountaingrove.

“Life is precious,” Sakaki's husband, Patrick McCallum, an educational consultant and lobbyist, wrote to Scott Lay, a Sacramento-based government and politics newsletter publisher. “At 4 a.m. this morning, Judy came screaming in to wake me up and say our house was on fire. With only time to put on boxers and (grab) the phone we ran out of the house to see our house, yard and all the other houses and yards on fire. One minute later we wouldn't have made it. And then we ran through flames, smoke, sparks for over 400 hundred yards until a truck drove by and we waved him down. If no truck drives by we wouldn't have made it.”

“My heart goes out to everyone who has been affected by the destructive wildfires that have done so much damage in our region,” Sakai wrote Tuesday in a message to the SSU community. “This makes me think about what really matters and how important it is that we care for each other.”

The Fountaingrove Village community, at Stagecoach Road and Fountain Grove Parkway, was completely destroyed, including multiple homes behind Nature's Grove Market and Sweet T's restaurant, which were also claimed by the fire. Houses on nearby Vintage Circle also were destroyed.

Todd McNeibe and his wife, Adelina, sifted through rubble Tuesday morning at their Fountaingrove Village house.

McNeibe said he couldn't sleep Sunday night and went out to enjoy the unusually warm wind. He went for a walk, talked to a few people and sat in the courtyard to enjoy a glass of wine.

“It was a real nice-feeling wind,” he said. Looking back, he said, he should have known something was wrong - that the gusts would be capable of whipping up an epic disaster.

He went to bed but was awakened by a loud knock on his door and a commanding voice.

“Get out!” came the order. “There's fire just north of here!” The couple woke their 3-year-old daughter and got dressed. He went back into the house to get his cellphone and wallet and fled with nothing else.

Up the hill, across Fountain Grove Parkway, the 163-unit Oakmont of Varenna senior home remained mostly untouched by flames, except for the north end of the building. But the 63-unit Oakmont of Villa Capri memory care center was destroyed.

On Tuesday evening, parent company Oakmont Senior Living released a statement that said all residents had been accounted for and are receiving care and services at another Oakmont Senior Living community and a partner facility in the East Bay.

The Fountaingrove Lodge and the Terraces were largely unharmed, but there will likely be smoke damage, according to the company.

“Our focus continues to be on the care, welfare and safety of our residents and staff,” Chris Kasulka, president and CEO of Oakmont Management Group, said in the statement.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or On Twitter @renofish

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