Santa Rosa apartment fire displaces 140, causes $500,000 in damage

It could be weeks or longer before some residents in the West Steele Lane complex are allowed home.|

Firefighters’ flashlights illuminated the blackened hallway Friday that led Renee Priolo and her two sisters to Priolo’s home - in a large Santa Rosa apartment complex where fire had erupted Thursday night, causing major damage and displacing 140 people.

Priolo and dozens of other families who live in one half of the 64-unit Nueva Vista apartment complex north of Coddingtown Mall were escorted by firefighters back to their dwellings to retrieve belongings, medication, clothes, personal mementos and pets left behind as they fled amid black smoke that enveloped much of the second floor minutes after one unit caught fire just before 7 p.m. Thursday.

The brief visits home came as fire inspectors said they were unable to give displaced residents a timeline on when they might be able to reoccupy their units, which are contained in two separate buildings at West Steele and McBride lanes. Many residents are facing temporary displacement that could last weeks, if not longer.

Electrical equipment is likely to blame for the fire that began in a second-story unit within the north building and moved into an apartment above it on the third floor, Santa Rosa fire officials said. Damage, estimated at $500,000, was heaviest on the second floor, but thick smoke also affected the first and third floors of the building.

An inspection of the unit where the fire started led fire investigators to hone in on an older entertainment center in the living room, said Assistant Fire Marshal Paul Lowenthal.

A man who was alone in the unit when the fire started was able to escape and was medically cleared at the scene, he added.

Neighbors whose paths to safety were blocked in the fire leaped off balconies and onto carport roofs to safety. Others climbed to the complex’s roof and were helped down by firefighters using a ladder.

Twenty of the residents forced from their homes Thursday stayed overnight in emergency shelters while others checked into hotels or stayed with family members, Lowenthal said.

People living in the south building untouched by the fire were allowed to return home after 1:30 p.m. Friday when gas and electricity to those 32 units were restored, Lowenthal said.

Fire officials, city code enforcement workers and Santa Rosa’s Chief Building Official Jesse Oswald were inspecting units in the north building Friday to determine which could be reoccupied.

“The focus is really to get people back into their residences as quickly as possible, but we need to make sure it’s safe to do so,” Lowenthal said.

Shattered glass covered the carpet of the hallway on the second floor and smudged handprints on the walls showed where many residents had to feel their way out of the building because of heavy smoke.

“I knew where the stairs were but I couldn’t see anything,” Priolo said. “I do not even know how I made it.”

When her sister heard about the fire she rushed from her home in Lake County to be by Renee’s side.

Marisa Priolo said she barely recognized her sister, who was covered head-to-toe in black soot.

Throughout the ordeal Renee Priolo’s main concern was the safety of her three cats. It was the same worry she had when the Tubbs fire threatened the area of west Santa Rosa in 2017.

“I had to leave two behind last night because they have never known anything but this apartment so that is all I have been thinking about since I left them,” said Priolo, a Nueva Vista resident since 2007. “They are my babies.”

Fire officials said the age of the two apartment buildings, built in 1965, and their lack of a sprinkler system left them much more vulnerable to fire and factored in the aggressive two-alarm response by multiple agencies, including eight engines, two ladder trucks and 38 firefighters.

Like many others in the complex, which is home to about 300 people, Priolo said she assumed when the fire alarms starting wailing after 6:30 p.m. that it was a false warning. It wasn’t until she opened her door and was faced with a wall of smoke that she realized it was an emergency.

The blaze was contained in 40 minutes and only a few residents complained of minor injuries, including smoke inhalation, a Santa Rosa Fire Department news release said. No one was sent to the hospital.

Electrical fires can start for various reasons, including when outlets are overloaded, if wires are frayed or if electrical equipment is old, Lowenthal said. He did not know which situation applied in Thursday’s blaze.

“Based on nothing else being in the area, other than the electrical (equipment) seen, it appears to be the cause of the fire at this time,” Lowenthal said.

Deborah McCarter, whose unit is in the north building, loaded up her car with suitcases and bags of belongings Friday as she prepared to move in with her son in Rohnert Park.

“My sister called me crying when I was at work to tell me what happened and I didn’t know what I was supposed to do,” said McCarter, who has lived in the complex since 2012. Her sister also lives at Nueva Vista but in a unit in the south building, so she was allowed back home Friday.

“I got all my stuff packed and ready to go move in with my son because in these terrible situations if you have family then you are lucky,” McCarter said.

You can reach Staff Writers Alexandria Bordas at 707-521-5337 or and Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or

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