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Fire survivors Christina and Greg Wilson and their dog Max stand beside their swimming pool in Santa Rosa, California, on Thursday, October 4, 2018. The Wilsons and their dog survived the Tubbs Fire by taking refuge in their swimming pool for about three hours before being rescued by Santa Rosa police officers and Cal Fire battalion chief Gino DeGraffenreid. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)

'I’m not sure how you get past this': Fire-scarred Mark West Springs neighbors stick together through hardship

Surrounded by fire a year ago, the residents of Michele Way Estates were forced into awful decisions and endured incredible suffering to survive. Now they weigh how to move forward with their lives.
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By the time they heard the wail of a siren signaling help’s arrival in the dark of their fire-stricken neighborhood, Greg and Christina Wilson already had been through the worst.

Trapped at their home north of Santa Rosa by the wildfire that roared across the Mayacamas Mountains last fall, they took refuge in their swimming pool, surviving on gulps of toxic air that singed their lungs between repeated dunks they hoped would ward off burns.

They said their goodbyes, embracing in the frigid water as the Tubbs fire bore down.

They would emerge in the early hours of Oct. 9, severely injured, but alive — their tale of endurance now part of the tattered fabric of a Mark West Springs-area neighborhood striving to recover from the most destructive wildfire in state history.

The Wilsons were among a handful of residents on a dead-end street in the Michele Way Estates who were stranded in the early hours of the inferno after flames blocked their only exit.

The neighborhood on Santa Rosa’s northeastern outskirts was one of the first clusters of suburban homes overrun by the Tubbs fire, which began its deadly march in Sonoma County by mowing down ranch homes and rural estates higher up in the canyon of Mark West Creek, in Knights Valley and Mountain Home.

Though a year has passed, memories of that night have not faded for those who lived in the older development, formed by Michele Way and adjoining Lorraine Way.

Their story was barely recounted in the days after the firestorm and has not been fully told since. It is the nightmare evaded by thousands who fled the firestorm — cornered on once-familiar streets in the middle of the night by walls of flame, with no hope of rescue.

We were right in the center of the heat of that thing. We were very lucky to get out. — Gary Bayless

“We were right in the center of the heat of that thing,” said longtime resident Gary Bayless, 69, who managed to escape. “We were very lucky to get out.”

Lorraine Way residents Blaine and Rayna Westfall were pinned face-down on the ground by flames on a hillside below their house for three hours. John Smihula hunkered down in a metal and concrete shed. They watched as their world turned to ash and their odds of survival dwindled.

Blaine Westfall used his wife’s sweater sleeve as a breathing mask, and counted in his head to stave off the panic of getting too little air. He said he was aware constantly for the first 90 minutes of having mere seconds left to live.

“This is it,” he remembered thinking.

A community turned upside down

All of the roughly 40 homes in the subdivision formed by Michele and Lorraine ways were destroyed in the Tubbs fire. Eight of the 22 people who died in the fire lived within a mile of the neighborhood, including Michele Way resident Michael Grabow, 40.

He lived in a basement apartment in his parents’ rental house and died in his bed, apparently unaware the world had caught fire, his father said. His parents were out of state at the time.

Most residents of the neighborhood remain scattered around the region, some still debating whether they can and should rebuild. Others already have moved on to what will be permanent homes.

About half of the neighbors, including the Wilsons and Westfalls, are committed to reclaiming their former places, and a few have made good progress on construction.

Whatever their plans, it’s clear the experience of the past year has created new bonds among them. The blaze leveled the widely spaced, wooded homes where they lived, but also narrowed the emotional distance between them.

We’re going to know our neighbors again. — Kira Staykow

“We’re going to know our neighbors again,” said Kira Staykow, who lives on Mark West Springs Road at the edge of the subdivision.

She joined several dozen neighbors for a recent potluck dinner at the newly built Michele Way home of Barry and Marlena Hirsch, who are close to moving in. “Today’s really incredible,” she said.

Gazing out on blackened trees and, slopes left bare by the removal of hundreds of burned trees, two women noted the framing of a new house on a distant hill, and palm trees silhouetted against a skyline they never before noticed.

Those gathered compared notes on settling insurance claims and understanding new building codes while admiring the Hirsch family's home.

Without warning

The stories shared by these neighbors reflect the collective trauma of the wider community, beginning with how many learned of the fire — at a moment’s notice, without any official warning. Their flight was obscured by smoke, blocked by downed and burning trees, and whorls of flame that towered overhead. Each second seemed to bring a life-or-death decision.

Lorraine Way resident Lois Redeker-Menchen, a lively 81-year-old, was so convinced that her own home was safe she packed an ice chest with food for others who might not be so lucky.

She left it behind, in the trunk of her car, when she was unable to open her garage door and fled through flames with a nearby neighbor.

The specter of catastrophic wildfire was so remote for residents that the smell of smoke wafting toward homes struck some neighbors as odd: Who would be lighting their fireplace on such a warm night? Others were alarmed by the smoke but imagined its origin was nowhere nearby. Some checked online or called emergency dispatchers and learned the nearest fire was in Calistoga.

The Tubbs fire had erupted about 9:45 p.m. on Bennett Lane outside that city. High winds were propelling it west, scorching an acre a minute, up and over the mountain range dividing Napa and Sonoma counties.

Michele Way resident John Castetter, 70, had been monitoring smoke for hours that night and had taken some comfort that the fire was miles away. Around 1 a.m. he looked outside his home and saw “flames coming over the hills.”

I didn’t evacuate. I escaped. —Michele Way resident John Castetter, 70

“I didn’t evacuate. I escaped,” Castetter said.

His wife, Linda, who had been sick for months and walked with a cane, left the neighborhood with him but would trip and fall later that night, breaking a leg. She suffered complications from surgery two days later and died.

Some in the neighborhood hesitated to flee even after receiving scattered automated calls from authorities on their landlines after 11:30 p.m., urging them to prepare to leave or to evacuate.

After midnight the power went out. The danger seemed to set in.

Lorraine Way resident Sari Schellinger, 68, had received one of the warning calls, but hadn’t panicked — “My first mistake,” she said. She went upstairs to pack a bag.

By the time she was backing out of her garage, “there was fire everywhere.”

She took a moment to call Redeker-Menchen, who lived above her on the hill. Redeker-Menchen had been unable to open her own electric garage door and tried the manual bypass, to no avail. Schellinger drove her way and helped her escape.

“If you haven’t been through it, you don’t have a clue,” Schellinger said.

The peril was so clear, Melissa Linneman recalled “laying on the horn the whole way out” as she drove from her niece’s home at the end of Michele Way, where she had planned to spend the night.

Just two weeks earlier, Linneman, 52, had been present for a consultation about fire-defensive landscaping. There, Rincon Valley Fire Prevention Officer Cyndi Foreman had warned that a fire from the east meant “Get out,” even if it seemed far away. Linneman heard that voice in her head Oct. 8.

Absent that, “I would have gone right back in the house,” said Linneman.

Belvedere Police Officer Charley Wayshak slept until his cellphone began to vibrate on the bedside table in his Lorraine Way home. His friend was yelling, “Get out!” when Wayshak picked up. Glancing outside, he saw fire on the hill nearby.

Wayshak’s 16-year-old son sat beside him in the cab of their beefy pickup, choking in the smoke that accumulated as they drove through flames. A burning tree lay across their way out on Mark West Springs Road. At some point, a large limb put a hole in the windshield and dented the top of the truck.

“I honestly feel that my training as a law enforcement officer for so many years and knowing the roadway — coupled with, ‘Hey, I have my son here. I have to protect my son’ — I think that pushed me that hard to get out of there,” Wayshak said.

Jeannie Creager, a self-described “big under-reactor,” may have been the last to get out of the neighborhood.

She finally fled her home across Lorraine Way from the Wilsons, driving her classic Volkswagen Beetle. She had trouble navigating and remembers seeing Wayshak blow by her on his way out.

She calmly resigned herself that death was near, but then sprang into action because she knew her 23-year-old granddaughter had become lost somewhere in the smoke, driving a separate car.

Creager found her, overcome by panic and frozen behind the wheel.

I got in the car with her, and I said, ‘Taira! Just go! ’If I hadn’t been screaming at her, I don’t know what would have happened. — Jeannie Creager, whose granddaughter froze with fear at the wheel amid the firestorm

“I got in the car with her, and I said, ‘Taira! Just go!’” said Creager, 71. “If I hadn’t been screaming at her, I don’t know what would have happened.”

One way in, one way out

Construction on Michele Way Estates started in the mid-1950s, but the subdivision was mostly built in the '60s and '70s, nestled amid wooded hills and steep drainages on the northern edge of Santa Rosa near Mark West Creek. Most of the homes had multiple levels to accommodate the steeply sloped lots. Many had several thousand square feet of floor space.

The only access into and out of the neighborhood is at Mark West Springs Road, a major east-west artery that swings near the subdivision about 2.5 miles east of Old Redwood Highway. There, Michele Way heads a short distance uphill, bends sharply left and follows a curving course downhill toward the west-flowing creek.

At the bend, Lorraine Way proceeds uphill then curves left and dead-ends. It’s about half the length of Michele Way and had about a dozen homes.

The neighborhood’s inhabitants were empty-nesters and retirees, a few families and single people, surrounded by nature and the privacy it afforded. A number of people knew only their most immediate neighbors.

Many residents had lived in their homes for three or four decades. Some recalled a local controversy that erupted in the mid-1980s when the developer of neighboring Quietwater Estates installed a bridge across Mark West Creek.

The low span connected Michele Way and Quietwater in a single continuous road but for one hitch: a locked, electric sliding gate along the western stream bank that prevented its use by anyone without the keypad code — meaning anyone who resided outside the luxury estates. Even residents at the bottom of Michele Way could only leave the neighborhood by driving north, uphill to the exit on Mark West Springs Road, precisely where the Tubbs fire roared into the neighborhood.

Most neighbors were only roughly aware of time that night, but it’s apparent many funneled out of that pinch point around the same time — midnight to 1 a.m. A few left earlier, driving through smoke only to flee again, once or twice, as the fire moved west into northern Santa Rosa, where it would level more than 3,000 homes.

Losing a best friend

For several Lorraine Way neighbors, however, there was no clear path to Mark West Springs Road. It had been blocked by a line of vehicles at a crucial point, including at least one car that apparently stalled in the road as flames burst from homes on either side of the exit.

At that moment, the Westfalls, the Wilsons, John Smihula and his partner, Wendy Trowbridge, were among those who made pivotal decisions.

Smihula, awakened by someone “leaning on their car horn,” drove away from his home separately from Trowbridge. With him was the couple’s 80-pound brindle mutt, Lorca.

With a “wave of fire” shooting across the road ahead, Smihula, 56, decided to gamble on the possibility that the Quietwater gate might be open.

He thought others followed as he turned around to head downhill, hoping to get ahead of the fire. Behind him, a tree toppled across the road and trapped him at the bridge preventing anyone else from reaching it.

Trowbridge was last in the line of cars and saw others headed back toward her, apparently turned back by the obstacle.

That “was my first revelation of ‘Wow, this is really serious. I could actually be trapped in here and the only way out of here is through the fire,’” Trowbridge said.

Seeing a neighbor she knew drive through the flames, she followed, and made it safely down to the valley.

Smihula, meanwhile, found the bridge gate locked and an abandoned car left on the span.

A man leaving his own driveway appeared on the other side of the gate. The sound of his tires on gravel as he drove away still sounds in Smihula’s ears. He doesn’t believe the man could have missed him as he stood in the glare of his own headlights, desperate for help he didn’t get.

He tried frantically to heave his dog over the spiked fence. He had no choice but to drop him about 9 feet over the side of the bridge, jumping after him. Incredibly, he said, neither broke a limb.

In the smoke and dark, they crossed the creek and tried to find a route up to the Quietwater side through a tangle of wire fencing and gates. Lorca’s feet were burning, and Smihula’s sole focus was saving his dog, who would not make it out.

“I started to see the trust in his eyes fade until he realized I couldn’t save him, and he broke from my grasp,” Smihula said recently, his voice choking up.

Lorca’s remains were found much later. The dog had managed to get halfway home before he succumbed.

Alone, Smihula took shelter in a shed of metal and concrete, a horse stall perhaps, with air gaps in the corners where he could breathe. Brushing embers and sparks off his body, he hugged the floor for about two hours, until the worst had passed and he thought it safe to walk out.

He remembers lumbering down Mark West Springs Road, seeing one mailbox after another resting on the road, their wooden posts incinerated. A lone squirrel, shellshocked like Smihula, walked up the road.

I’ve never seen anything like it. It was like the world had ended. Everything had either been burned or was on fire. — John Smihula

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Smihula said. “It was like the world had ended. Everything had either been burned or was on fire.”

Fleeing for their lives

Around that time, the Wilsons and Westfalls were delivered to safety, rescued by a trio of emergency responders.

Blaine Westfall, 62, had been behind about a dozen cars blocking the exit. He worried his full fuel tank might explode and couldn’t handle waiting after several minutes.

Backing up, he headed toward home at the end of the cul-de-sac with his wife of 20 years and their two small dogs.

The fire got there before they did.

Hoping to reach the safety of the creek down the steep slope from Lorraine Way, the Westfalls sprinted down the thickly wooded hill, each with a dog in their arms. Rayna Westfall fell twice and suffered second-degree burns on her arms and legs.

But the flames outran them, and they dove to the ground in a low grassy meadow that already had burned — pressed flat by flames and embers that whirled over them as chaparral ignited and 100-foot trees torched.

The injuries on her arms and shins started to become painful. But Rayna Westfall, 59, said she drew strength from her spiritual faith and her trust in her husband.

“I felt the entire time, both Blaine and I were protected,” she said.

Speaking only intermittently, they clutched the ground for about 90 minutes, until the fire began to subside.

Rayna Westfall was able to reach in her purse for her phone. She called her daughter in Healdsburg, who is engaged to a Santa Rosa policeman. She told her she and Blaine needed help, delivering the news as calmly as she could.

The couple did not know at the time that the Wilsons, close friends who lived two doors away, were trapped nearby. They had retreated to the pool in their backyard and were suffering immensely.

With the fire surrounding them, they would duck under the water’s surface over and over, rising with their eyes closed against embers to suck whatever oxygen they could get from the air before going back under.

Greg Wilson, 54, clutched their shih tzu, Maximus, so tightly and for so long he would not be able to lift his arms overhead for about four months.

“I can remember coming up and not even being able to get a good breath of air because it was just super-heated air and the fire was coming across,” he said. “It’s hard to say how long we were having to do that.”

When the worst had passed, his wife walked to the pool’s edge, curled up on the coping and collapsed.

“I almost didn’t even care anymore,” Christina Wilson, 52, said.

They didn’t know if help was on the way or anticipate what lay ahead: medically induced comas, feeding tubes and ventilators in intensive care, newly acquired asthma for Greg and the gunk they would still be coughing up a year later.

“We don’t know if we will fully recover,” Christina said.

Saved by the 'slow wail'

Shortly before 4 a.m., the Wilsons heard “this slow wail” coming up Mark West Springs Road, and then down Lorraine Way.

It was two policemen — Nick Madarus, who is engaged to marry the Westfalls’ daughter, and Chance Landreneaux, another Santa Rosa officer who volunteered to come along. Cal Fire Battalion Chief Gino DeGraffenreid had joined them. He had just driven through the fire from Calistoga to Santa Rosa and encountered the two officers on their way east. He tried to discourage them from taking a patrol car into what he knew lay ahead, then decided to lead them through it to save whoever might still be alive.

They were met by apocalyptic scenes. Burning trees that served to light the way also proved hazards, shedding scorched limbs. Power lines dangled overhead, propane tanks exploded and flames shot from ruptured gas lines.

Madarus said he wouldn’t have believed his girlfriend’s parents survived had she not just spoken with them. Otherwise, he said, “I probably wouldn’t have gone up there.”

When they reached the end of Lorraine Way, they heard Greg Wilson calling weakly for help. He was on the opposite side of the cul-de-sac from where the Westfalls had said they could be found. The Wilsons were in shock and hypothermic, DeGraffenreid said. Their state haunts him.

“It was by chance that we found Greg and Christina,” DeGraffenreid said. “The idea of people being left behind, it’s agonizing for us.”

Blaine Westfall still can’t shake the sound of “eerie stillness” broken that morning by the siren that led to their rescue. Soon afterward he saw the glow of headlights and a flashlight beam shining down from above.

“That was the greatest sound in my life, and then to see the lights,” Westfall said, his voice cracking. “It was eerily quiet and dark, and to hear that police officer coming, that was something.”

They climbed the hill together and were approached by a blackened figure who embraced Blaine. It was Greg Wilson, but he was so covered in soot and ash that Westfall didn’t initially recognize his friend.

Moving forward and rebuilding

The Westfalls spent the winter in Tahoe but have since been living and working in trailers parked in front of their homesite. The foundation of their new home is about ready to be poured.

“We are so excited about something going vertical,” Blaine said. “We’re really happy.”

The former general contractor acknowledged the path has been smoother for people with experience or connections in the building industry, especially when so many are underinsured.

Hirsch, a retired contractor whose license is still active, has tried to help. As treasurer of the Michele Way Mutual Water Co., which serves 62 households, it was his task to reconnect with everyone after the fires. Later he was appointed block captain to help organize neighbors who want to rebuild and communicate with county government.

“I’ve gotten to know these people and build relationships with them,” said Hirsch, a 32-year Michele Way resident. “I feel a sense of community that’s been really great.”

Hosting the neighborhood potluck at his nearly finished home was a symbol, he said, of “moving forward into this new period we’re in.”

For some, however, the ordeal experienced here remains too great. Creager lived 46 years in the neighborhood. She plans to build a home near her son in Lake County.

[I think I probably relive it every day. I’m not sure how you get past this.]

“I think I probably relive it every day,” Creager said. “I’m not sure how you get past this.”

On their cleared property last week, Christina Wilson pointed to where the Meyer lemon tree once stood. She remarked how uncluttered and small everything looked without their home. Nearby, her husband held Maximus, stroking his coat.

Behind the scorched chain-link fence, the pool lay empty. Prints from the shoes Christina wore that night remain emblazoned in black on the concrete deck, alongside the rectangular form of a cellphone charred that night.

The plans for their new house are ready to submit any day.

“Here we thought we had this perfect little life,” she said, “and it almost ended, with us fighting for our lives right here.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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Anniversary Fire Coverage

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