Video: A Santa Rosa family returns to a home of 25 years, now reduced to ash

Karl and Julie Wilber bought their Santa Rosa home on a cul-de-sac off Fir Ridge Drive in Fountaingrove 25 years ago.

They had moved from eastern Tennessee with their two young boys and the two-story home on a quiet street checked all the right boxes. It was modestly priced, and located near enough to good schools the boys would later attend: Cardinal Newman and Santa Rosa High School. It had an open floor plan, with two bedrooms upstairs for the boys - then 6 and 12 - a master bedroom downstairs and an office where Karl, an engineer, could work. Over the years as their sons grew up, the family of four filled the house with memories.

On the night of Oct. 8, Karl, 68, and Julie, 66, a retired flight attendant, were in bed by 9 p.m. As winds picked up outside - gusts would peak that night at a reported 74 mph - a large tree branch broke off and hit the roof over their living room.

They looked outside and noticed a neighbor going around his house with a flashlight. In a span of mere minutes, they started to get concerning texts, calls and visits from neighbors as well as multiple PG&E messages about utility outages. Finally, a neighbor called and told them to get out. Advancing flames had jumped Riebli Road, a little over a half-mile away.

Still, when the couple left about 12:30 a.m. they had no idea it would be the last time they'd see their home standing. They fled in a vehicle with little except for basic toiletries and their wallets. Julie grabbed her purse.

“Our first reaction was just - surreal, complete shock - because we left there thinking, maybe not wisely, that there was a chance (as) with other fires that this thing might get abated before it got to that location,” said Karl Wilber.

On Saturday, Karl and his sons, Ryan, of Santa Rosa, and Andrew, of Pleasant Hill, returned to inspect the remains of their home and neighborhood. It was an emotional visit filled with uncertainty about the future.

“We talk to neighbors, and they say let's rebuild, etc.,” Karl said. “I don't want to be part of a groundswell of construction activity and whatever that's going to do the cost of materials, cost of labor. The short answer is we don't know what we're doing going forward.”

They left without car titles and financial documents, a common hardship among refugees who face difficult first steps after the fire.

“Insurance companies call up and say ‘What was the VIN number on the car? Who was driving the car at the time of the accident? Did you use the car for Uber or Lyft? What condition were the tires in?” Karl Wilber said. “You can imagine how crazy these questions seem. Those are all punch-list things for some clerk who has some boxes to check, but they're just overwhelming for someone like us, and we are not alone in this. ... There are hundreds and hundred of people (having this) experience.”

You can reach Staff Writer Christi Warren at 707-521-5205 or On Twitter @SeaWarren.

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