The Tubbs fire: How its deadly march from Calistoga to Santa Rosa unfolded
Cal Fire Battalion Chief Gino DeGraffenreid was about to jump back into his truck after loading a fleeing family into a police car when he thought he heard someone yelling amid the roaring wind and fire in the hills northeast of Santa Rosa.
He ran toward the voice and saw them: a couple wearing next to nothing, freezing amid an unprecedented fire belching smoke and raining firebrands.
“They were soaking wet,” DeGraffenreid said. “They had awoken to a smoke detector, jumped in the pool and for about an hour had been in the pool trying to stay away from heat.”
He wrapped them in T-shirts, put them into his truck and caravaned with police down Michele Way to Mark West Springs Road, a white-knuckle trip with fire and intense heat - a burning neighborhood already wiped clean of all that had once been so familiar.
“All of the landmarks - the houses, the fences, the goofy Volkswagen bug - all of the visual landmarks were gone,” DeGraffenreid said.
Gale-force winds fueled an unprecedented number of wildfires that started almost simultaneously after night fell Oct. 8 in places across the North Coast region, killing at least 40 people in four counties and forcing entire communities to evacuate, including about 50,000 Sonoma County residents.
The battle to contain fires covering more than 178,000 acres across the region continues still.
Tracing the start of what's now called the Tubbs fire - named for its origin near Tubbs Lane just north of the Calistoga city limits - shows how one fire overwhelmed emergency personnel, erupting amid Diablo winds on a Sunday night when many were asleep.
In just over four hours, the Tubbs fire made a horrific 12-mile run from Calistoga, in the northern edge of the Napa Valley, into a dense city neighborhood in west Santa Rosa. It raced through ranches and rural communities, sweeping through million-dollar homes in Santa Rosa's hillside Fountaingrove development and tract neighborhoods in Larkfield-Wikiup. At 2 a.m., the ferocity of the firestorm propelled it across Highway 101, an unprecedented leap that spread flames into a commercial district on Cleveland Avenue and hundreds of tightly packed homes in Coffey Park.
The fire traveled at a pace of about 3 mph, burning up about an acre a minute while spewing burning embers a half-mile or more ahead, forcing entire neighborhoods to flee in the middle of the night.
“For a fire to move that fast is incredible,” said Eric Hoffman, a retired assistant chief with Cal Fire who rejoined the state fire agency to help manage the firefight and later calculated the fire's speed.
Authorities have said nothing about what caused the fire.
One week ago, as dry, strong winds began to buffet the region after night fell, fires began erupting in a chaotic pattern across Sonoma County, like bombs going off in every direction.
Flames engulfed a home on Mark West Station Road near the Sonoma County Airport. An electrical box was smoking on Maverick Court in the hills above Larkfield. Officers went door to door in Santa Rosa's West End neighborhood as a Pierson Street home burned.
The 50 mph winds flung branches every which way and knocked drought-stricken trees off weakened roots, combining with downed power lines to block major roads from Highway 101 in Sonoma County to Highway 128 north of Calistoga.
That was all before Napa County dispatchers reported “another wildfire” about 9:45 p.m. Oct. 8, north of Calistoga on Highway 128 near Bennett Lane.
The wind hit like a wall about 9:30 p.m. when Anne Pelton stepped outside her Mountain Ranch Road home, about 2 miles as the crow flies from the fire's origin. She went back inside, and called Calistoga police just before 10 p.m. - a dispatcher said a fire started just north of Calistoga city limits.
Then at 10:18 p.m. a neighbor sent an urgent text message: the whole hillside was ablaze.
DeGraffenreid had already alerted every station in six counties to be on alert and fully staffed because of the wind. Within about 10 minutes of the Tubbs fire's start, DeGraffenreid, still en route from west Santa Rosa, could tell by reports on the ground that the fire was spreading fast. He called for two chief officers and 10 engines, ordering Cal Fire fighters inside of the burning home on Mark West Station Road to leave immediately and head east.
“This fire was going to kill people. We knew it that night,” DeGraffenreid said.
Bringing in dispatchers
KT McNulty, who was supervising Sonoma County's 911 dispatch center that night, called in more staff. Dispatchers arrived with children in tow, putting on a movie and tucking them in blankets.
By 10 p.m., dispatchers were taking more than 300 calls an hour - as much as they usually handle in one day.