“Dad, there’s somebody pounding on the front door!”
That’s how this nightmare began for so many of us — with a phone call or a voice in the night. Then came the smell of smoke, the realization that the power was out and the eerie sounds of punishing winds and voices on the street.
Soon, we were on the sidewalk, talking to neighbors and pointing toward the silhouettes of houses tinged with the menacing glow of an urban wildfire the likes of which we have never seen before.
For us, it happened at 2:30 a.m. Moments later we were pounding on neighbors’ doors ourselves, loading the minivan with photos, computers and keepsakes and arguing over silly things like what shoes and food to bring. We brought bananas, raisin bread and premade salads. It made no sense. And then we were slipping into one of the many streams of red tail lights that ran throughout Sonoma County, ribbons of cars and trucks inching along, many filled with evacuees unsure where they were going.
So many odd street scenes. People in colored pajamas with dogs on leashes. People pulling out their lawns. “I hear there’s an evacuation shelter set up a Finley,” someone shouts. “No, I think they’re full,” someone responds. One motorist tried driving the wrong direction on four-lane Highway 12 near Middle Rincon Road in an apparent attempt to bypass the bumper-to-bumper traffic. Panic, it appeared, was starting to set in.
But we were among the lucky ones. We were among the 20,000 or so who were evacuated, but not among the hundreds who lost their homes — at least not yet. For many this nightmare was something more.
Like for Ann Dubay, who says she knew something awful was brewing late Sunday. With the 50 mph winds and warm air, she and her family “could feel it in our bones,” she said. Around 9:30 p.m., they could see fire in the distance from a hill near their home off Riebli Road. Within an hour, it was clear that they needed to get out. “It was moving so quickly, it was incredible,” she said. She, her husband Jeremy and their son Jake scrambled to get away.
For Dubay, the community and governmental affairs manager of the Sonoma County Water Agency and a former editorial writer for The Press Democrat, it was déjà vu. She lived in that same house with her parents and sisters in 1964 when the Hanly Fire swept through the same area. “It was eerily similar,” she said. She was an infant but she remembers being evacuated with her sisters. Her house survived that fire. But not this one.
“I’ve seen a couple of photos of the area,” she said. “It just looks horrible.”
A couple of hours later, the fire had reached Fountaingrove where Dr. Rob Nied was awoken by the smell of acrid smoke engulfing his cul-de-sac off Fir Ridge Drive. After a brief 1 a.m. meeting with neighbors, “We all agreed that we needed to start packing,” he said. He and his wife and two daughters quickly started loading their cars, but it was all surreal, he said. His teenage daughters packed their volleyball and running gear and school books, as if it was going to be a normal day. But it soon became clear that it wasn’t going to be. “We just started throwing everything in the car,” he said. “Then the sky lit up and embers started coming down on us.”