Chris Smith: Neighbors, strangers took a stand on Santa Rosa’s Baird Road

The fire moves down Baird Road in Santa Rosa, Monday, Oct. 9, 2017. (Chris Smith / Press Democrat)


A bit past 8 a.m. Monday, as fear and agony soaked like a stain into vast, burnt swaths of Napa and Sonoma counties, the fight came to Baird Road.

It’s the country lane, parallel to and a couple of blocks west of Calistoga Road, that you take to the tucked-away dream fields of Rincon Valley Little League.

A roiling cloud of black smoke appeared over Baird Road as the fire advanced from the north and east. Flames engulfed an old home at Baird and Rincon Avenue.

The crew of a single Cal Fire engine pulled into the driveway of the home next in the path of the firestorm, fogging it with spray. One by one, residents of the long block of Baird between Rincon Avenue and Badger Road stepped onto the pavement and gazed at the smoke as though they beheld a monster.

Explosions sounded, presumably from propane canisters and the like at homes burning up behind the curtain of smoke. Wind-dealt cinders ignited small fires here and there, on a fence, in the rustic road’s plentiful dry weeds and grass. Two terrified deer ran away.

Baird Road residents and good Samaritans ran, too. Toward the danger.

They filled, hauled and dumped buckets of water onto emergent flames in the yards of neighbors and strangers. Someone pulled a garden hose across Baird Road and used a ladder to position a sprinkler on the roof of an apparently untended house. A civilian water truck rolled up and its driver aimed a drenching blast at fire in that home’s landscaping.


THERE WAS NO ENGINE to defend Darlene Russell’s house, located right next door to the one with the CDF pumper in the driveway.

Russell has shared the house with her two kids, one a teenager and the other a young adult, since her husband Bret died in March when an SUV pulled into the path of his Harley-Davidson motorcycle maybe a mile away on Sonoma Highway.

Spot fires grew as several people from the neighborhood and beyond stepped to the Russells’ door and urged them to get out.

“All your important papers, go get them,” a woman told Darlene Russell, “All your pictures, go get them. Now!”

The neighbors followed Russell into the house and idled while she and her son and daughter gathered up personal belongings. All went into two pickups parked out front.

“Anything else?” barked one of the neighbors. Russell stepped out with what she’d decided was her last load.

“We’re out!” she shouted. While waiting for her children to emerge, she snapped a cellphone picture of their home.

“It’s probably the last time I’ll see it,” she said.


BUT SHE DIDN’T LEAVE. Darlene Russell noticed about then a calm had returned to Baird Road.

Firefighters had halted the fire on her side of the road with their defense of the house just upwind. The wind had subsided some, and two more CDF engines had arrived to subdue the flames that imperiled three homes across the road.

“That was a good save!” rejoiced Rick Robertson, a tree trimmer who’d arrived at the Russells’ before 8 and went to work hauling water and hoses and pitching in for them and the others on the block.

“Everybody just picked up a bucket,” he said. “The neighborhood came together.”

Chris Smith is at 707-521-5211 and