Santa Rosa firefighter loses new house while defending others from Glass fire

Mike Musgrove believed he could make a forested property resilient against fire. Then the Glass fire broke out two days after the Santa Rosa fire captain bought it. The house, which was uninsured, burned to the ground.|

Santa Rosa Fire Capt. Mike Musgrove was “ready for a win” when his brother, Sean, asked if he’d partner with a friend to buy a 37-acre parcel on St. Helena Road with three homes, a small vineyard, room to garden and raise animals. It was supposed to be a place to get the five teenage children among them off their phones.

For Musgrove, it was just the opportunity he’d been hoping for since the sudden death in 2018 of his 20-year-old daughter, a step forward that would help with the grief deeply felt by him and his other daughter, who is 17 years old.

Instead, the uninsured property burned on the first day of the Glass fire, its three homes and a driveway bridge destroyed while Musgrove was fighting to save homes along the Highway 12 corridor.

Musgrove, his brother and their friend had pooled together their savings and a cash loan when, while in escrow, the property was suddenly foreclosed upon and put to auction. They were the sole bidders and won the property for about $1.4 million on Sept. 25, the Friday before the Glass fire broke out. But unlike the traditional home-buying process, they could not insure the property until it was theirs.

It was a risky investment rooted in the hopes and dreams of three single parents, a wholesome gamble that would have set their families on new paths had wildfire not erupted at precisely the wrong time. They hoped to purchase insurance on the rural, forested property east of Santa Rosa as soon as possible. But the Glass fire came first.

“I put everything I had into it,” Musgrove said.

Musgrove has been part of recent firefights in Sonoma County against increasingly destructive wildland blazes, including the unprecedented firestorm of October 2017.

He believed that he could make the St. Helena Road property defendable against fire and had already envisioned how he would clear out some of the Douglas fir, remove lower limbs and clear out vegetation in the seasonal creek because of how fire burns through drainages. His new neighbor was to be a fellow veteran of the Santa Rosa Fire Department, Rachelle Brooke, who recently retired. Brooke lost her longtime residence in the Glass fire and was burned when flames hit her property.

The Glass fire erupted before dawn Sunday, Sept. 27 across the Napa Valley on Howell Mountain. Fueled by wind, it spread at such a rate that authorities suspect embers cast from the main fire ignited two separate blazes that night across the valley in Sonoma County along St. Helena Road.

In fire-prone areas of Sonoma County, many insurance companies require a site visit before taking them on, according to Musgrove. He said they made some calls Friday, Sept. 25 when they bought the property, but were unable to get an appointment for the weekend.

“This was the perfect worst-case-scenario,” Musgrove said.

With the Glass fire burning through the forested corridor where he’d pinned his financial future, destroying homes throughout that part of eastern Sonoma County and down into the Sonoma Valley, Mustrove had to force anxious thoughts of his personal loss out of his mind and get to work.

The “all call” tone went out over the radio asking for any available firefighter to report to the Safeway parking lot at the base of Calistoga Road at Highway 12.

Musgrove was sent to Oakmont Gardens, where he led a crew helping elderly residents onto city buses before the fire posed a direct threat to the community at the base of the valley.

Once they were being taken to safety, he helped battle flames along Highway 12 as the wind-blown fire erupted piecemeal near homes along the highway corridor before dawn. There were saves and losses in that firefight.

After grueling hours, Musgrove still had a rented home in Santa Rosa’s Montgomery Village neighborhood to return to. While he and his partners owned the property on St. Helena Road, they had not moved any of their belongings there.

But his financial future was in ruins.

The Glass fire destroyed 334 single-family residents in Sonoma County and another 308 in Napa County, leaving hundreds of people without homes, personal belongings and with the trauma of suddenly losing it all.

Musgrove acknowledges his problems do not compare to those dealing with that level of disruption to their lives. And sympathetic supporters have donated more than $115,000 to help Musgrove and his land partners rebuild through a GoFundMe account set up by a friend at the Six Foundation, a nonprofit that provides rehabilitation and counseling services for first responders, enlisted military and veterans.

He and his partners hope to rebuild, though the costs will be enormous and out of pocket. Musgrove said he still hopes the property will be a place where he and his daughter can heal through their grief.

"Now we're just trying to save it," Musgrove said.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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