She’s 85 and first to respond to flames that imperiled Santa Rosa neighborhood
It’s almost entirely true that at about 12:15 on that historically horrifying Monday morning nearly three weeks ago, 85-year-old Shirley White, dressed in her nightgown and brandishing a garden hose, single-handedly saved Santa Rosa’s timbered and hilly Montecito Heights.
Just strike the single-handedly part.
“I keep getting people at my door, saying, ‘Thank you for saving the hill,’?” said White, a vigorous former teacher and veteran human rights and environmental advocate.
Though grateful for the hero treatment, she is quick to point out she did not act alone. Shortly after she ran out to attack the wind-propelled flames that spread in trees and brambles alongside her yard, she makes clear, others joined her - neighbors, then Santa Rosa firefighters and, after the doused fire flared back to life, more neighbors.
To White, it isn’t so important to assign credit. What was imperative was the small fire that broke out in Montecito Heights, a similar hillside-homes-among-the-trees neighborhood to nearby Fountaingrove, had to be stopped before it swept down to the multitudes of homes in the Grace Tract, Proctor-Terrace, Junior College and McDonald neighborhoods.
White said she realized as she stood and sprayed water onto the fire, “I’ve got to get it out because it will take the hill.” And if it took the hill, what might fall next?
Like most other Sonoma County residents, she went to bed Oct. 8 after an ordinary Sunday and slept until she realized something was awry.
“The noise from the tree woke me up,” said White, who has lived on Montecito Avenue since 1970 and was widowed by the death five years ago of her husband, career educator Russell White.
The tree was the substantial Douglas fir in the closest neighbor’s yard that crashed down when the wind snapped its trunk. Peering out her bedroom window on the second floor, White saw flames near the fallen tree.
As she headed for the bedroom door she glanced at the clock. It was 10 minutes past midnight.
“I just tore down the stairs and grabbed the hose where I knew it was,” she said.
Flames had spread to a live oak and a bank of blackberry vines just beyond her driveway. As she sprayed water, White braced herself against the wind.
“Never have I seen wind like that,” she said.
She’d been so intent on getting to the flames and preventing them from rising into the neighborhood’s thick tree canopy she hadn’t stopped to call 911. Across-the-street neighbor Mark Quattrocchi, the prominent Sonoma County architect, did.
He’d looked out a window after smelling smoke and hearing wind. He called for help then ran across the street and found Shirley White working to keep flames out of trees.
Quattrocchi offered to take the hose, and she handed it to him. He stepped closer and trained water at flames ascending a tree.
“I just knew with those winds that I had to get it down and get it down fast,” he said. Several other neighbors appeared from their homes.
Quattrocchi was still spraying water when an engine and ladder truck with the Santa Rosa Fire Department pulled up. The firefighters grasped at once that when the fir tree fell it knocked down a power line, and contact with it could be deadly.
White recalls the firefighters shouting, “Get back! Get away!”
All the neighbors backed off. Firefighters drenched the flames, then left.
White and Quattrocchi and their neighbors returned to their homes - they didn’t know then, about 12:30 a.m., of the monstrous fire that had roared into Santa Rosa from near Calistoga.
Maybe a half-hour later, neighbor Nobby Clark saw that the fire near White’s house had come back to life. His wife, Stacy, phoned 911 and was told firefighters were stretched too thin to return to Montecito Heights.
Clark and his 15-year-old son, Owen, hastened to the reawakened fire and trained water on it. Other neighbors joined them. The flames were doused a second time.
The neighbors returned again to their homes. Something over an hour later, they were ordered to evacuate. The Tubbs fire, unrelated to their midnight fire except for the common wind that fed them, had exploded.
Shirley White went to stay with a daughter in Berkeley. Neighbors Steven and Angela Gelber found a room at a Santa Rosa hotel.
Steven Gelber was in the hotel elevator with a man wearing a Santa Rosa Fire Department T-shirt. Gelber said the man asked him where he’d been evacuated from.
Gelber replied, “Montecito Heights” and the man said, “That was a disaster waiting to happen.”
But the Tubbs fire did not reach there. Once the residents were allowed back, they rejoiced their neighborhood was spared and some spoke of how hugely fortunate it was that White and others had put down the midnight fire from the downed line.
Said Quattrocchi, “No question, all of our lives would have been different if that fire had grown. I don’t think I’d have a house right now, and my friends and neighbors wouldn’t.”
Since everyone returned home, Shirley White has received a bottle of wine and other expressions of gratitude from neighbors who regard her as a hero. She reminds them she wasn’t alone and, anyway, “You would have done the same.”
As she recalls the good fortune and communal effort that saved Montecito Heights, she hurts from knowing suffering continues for so many people who lost their homes, even their entire neighborhoods, that woefully windy Sunday night and Monday morning.
Chris Smith is at 707-521-5211.