When Miles Blakesley aimed his Subaru Forester in the direction of an ominous orange glow early Oct. 9, the 19-year-old had no idea what to expect. He just knew he wanted to help.
“I wasn’t going to go home and sleep,” said Blakesley, who was driving friends home from a world folk concert at Petaluma’s Mystic Theatre shortly before midnight when he saw flames from Highway 101. “This is my hometown that’s on fire. What kept me going was that there might be people up there that needed help.”
He dropped his three friends at their home near Steele Lane, and headed toward Fountaingrove. After taking Chanate Road to Fountaingrove Parkway, he ended up on Brush Creek Road, where he first saw the magnitude of the fires, he said. It was 1 a.m.
He would spend six hours driving back roads, looping through neighborhoods including Fountaingrove, Rohnert Park, Bennett Valley, Kenwood and Cotati. He traveled through dense smoke, passing twisted metal frames of burned-out cars and skeletons of homes, searching for a chance to lend a hand.
“It was a total apocalypse. It was terrifying,” the Santa Rosa High School graduate said.
Around 4:30 a.m., he headed to the Bennett Ridge neighborhood for a better vantage point. Instead, he found Alison Reynolds.
“She was standing at the end of her driveway, looking around,” he said. “All the neighbors had left ... I thought, ‘Is she OK? Is she with people?’ I pulled up and she was in shock, like almost traumatized at this point.”
The smell of smoke had roused Reynolds, 68, from bed an hour earlier. Reynolds and her husband, David Trezise, tried to escape the Bennett Ridge Road home where they had lived for a dozen years, but were stopped within a quarter-mile by walls of flames destroying homes and vegetation.
Their neighbor, Bill Barnier, joined them as they waited at home, considering the option of taking refuge in their swimming pool. They would later learn that flames came within 10 feet of the house. Bennett Ridge lost about 100 homes. Two of seven homes in their cul-de-sac burned. Reynolds said it occurred to the group to try and drive down the road again that harrowing morning, but in that moment, as flames encroached, it didn’t seem possible.
About 4:30 Monday morning, Reynolds walked to the bottom of her driveway to check the fire’s progress from a different view. That’s when a 2010, bluish-green station wagon drove up. The driver said his name was Miles and he could help. She had never seen him before.
“It was just one of those little moments where the timing is everything,” Reynolds said later.
Guided by the teen, who activated his hazard flashers and high-beams, the trio traveled at 5 mph in a caravan of three cars down Rollo Road to Bennett Valley Road, Blakesley said.
There was no doubt in his mind that he would deliver them to safety, despite downed power lines, limited visibility and flames. He felt calm. The Santa Rosa native trusted his sense of direction and what he described as a photographic memory.
“I was determined at that point,” he said. “No matter what happened, I would have done everything in my power to make sure they got back down.”