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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,” 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.
Anniversary Fire Coverage
To read all of the PD's fire anniversary coverage, click here.