Santa Rosa bus video shows harrowing Tubbs fire rescue

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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

Normally, a 2 a.m. phone call would have woken Steve Roraus from a deep slumber.

But in the early morning hours of Oct. 9, the operations manager at Santa Rosa CityBus was wide awake in his home near Stony Point Road, kept up by the sounds of patio furniture tossed about by gale force winds and the ominous smell of smoke from the Tubbs fire bearing down on his city.

So when a colleague called to say Roraus needed to grab a city transit bus and help evacuate people from Fountaingrove, he was out the door in minutes.

What ensued was the most terrifying and heartbreaking bus ride of his life. Roraus, like several other city bus drivers that morning, raced through the deadly firestorm to carry elderly residents out of the path of the inferno.

“It just looked like a big witch’s cauldron,” Roraus said recalling the sight Journey’s End mobile home park as he drove cautiously down Fountaingrove Parkway with about 30 residents of the Brookdale senior living facility. “It was ridiculous.”

The heroics of the hundreds of firefighters and police officers who risked their lives to evacuate residents from the path of the Tubbs fire by now have been well documented. But the role that hundreds of other city workers like Roraus played — be they bus drivers, public works crews, or water system operators — has been less recognized.

Roraus, however, had the presence of mind to do what others did not in the days after the fire: preserve the video footage that the cameras onboard his bus captured.

That video was released by the city Monday in response to an April 11 public records request by The Press Democrat. The city took seven weeks to fulfill the request, it said, to ensure the identities of the passengers were obscured to protect their privacy.

A spokeswoman at Brookdale’s corporate headquarters in Brentwood, Tennessee said Tuesday that 107 residents were evacuated using city and company buses.

“We have to state how extremely grateful we are to the local authorities, associates and support staff that worked to maintain the residents safety and keep them comfortable during the evacuation,” spokeswoman Heather Hunter said in a release.

All residents were able to get to the community center without injury, after which they were relocated to other Brookdale facilities, she said.

Of the six city buses that participated in evacuation efforts on Oct. 9, only Roraus preserved the video, said Julia Gonzalez, communications coordinator for Santa Rosa CityBus. After about three weeks, videos on city buses are automatically overwritten, and that’s what happened to the video on the other buses, she said.

The video preserved by Roraus shows his bus pulling in to the Brookdale facility in the 300 block of Fountaingrove Parkway. He initially didn’t know where he was going, and was told simply to head up the hill and look for first responders. The smoke was so thick he had to look down at the road to navigate, he said.

He knew he’d arrived at the right location when he saw Lt. John Snetsinger standing in the middle of Bicentennial Way, directing him into what under normal circumstances would have been the exit of the Brookdale parking lot.

The video shows the parking lot clogged with ambulances and emergency vehicles, the silhouettes of the trees whipping back and forth against an umber sky. In the video, passengers are wheeled toward the bus and loaded on, in many cases by CityBus employees and police officers.

Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

Most are not able to come aboard with walkers or wheelchairs, which were left behind in the parking lot, but some were loaded in their chairs, creating cramped quarters. CityBus employees can be seen in the video climbing over passengers, many of whom appear to be in their pajamas, and at least one barefoot.

“These were really fragile folks,” Roraus said. “The expressions on their faces — they were terrified.”

As they leave the parking lot, Roraus said he was initially disoriented, but soon realized he was back on the Fountaingrove Parkway, which helped him get his bearings. But then he realized that he was heading east, up the hill toward the fire.

“I was going the wrong way,” he said.

He figured he’d hang a left on Round Barn Boulevard to circle back, but soon regretted the decision. Fire was on both sides of the roadway, he said. The video shows branches in the road, fire everywhere, and a huge blaze to the right, which Roraus said was the site of the historic Round Barn, already gone, and the Hilton Sonoma Wine Country hotel ablaze.

After turning back onto Fountaingrove Parkway and coming up on the Mendocino Avenue intersection, that’s when “I got a lump in my throat” at the sight of the Journey’s End mobile home park ablaze.

Roraus crossed Highway 101 and was initially encouraged. The Kmart was still standing and the gas station at the Cleveland Avenue intersection was still open, he said.

His destination was the Finley Community Center, which was being used as an evacuation center, and with a veteran bus driver’s knowledge of city streets, he headed down Hopper Avenue to get as far west and away from the flames as quickly as possible. Roraus began working for the city in 1984, and was a bus driver for 12 years before becoming a manager.

He soon realized his miscalculation, though, and watched in horror as he came upon Coffey Park.

“There wasn’t a house that wasn’t on fire,” Roraus said. “I was just stunned. I thought, ‘What the hell happened out here?’ ”

That portion of the journey was the scariest, he said, with the most intense heat and closest encounters with flames. A wind-driven river of sparks and embers snaked down the street before him, and he was terrified one would be blow into the engine compartment, find a spot of oil and catch the bus on fire.

“It could have been a complete disaster,” he said.

Once at Finley, the staff had to contend with another challenge. Most of the passengers had mobility impairments, but their wheelchairs and walkers had been left behind. City staff improvised and used office chairs to wheel people into the facility, he said. In addition to helping evacuate the care facilities in Fountaingrove, CityBus staff helped evacuate Kaiser hospital patients and staff to Marin. All told, Roraus estimated that city buses helped nearly 400 people to safety.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 707-521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect a Tuesday statement from the Brookdale.

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