“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.”
They managed to help an elderly couple next door to safety and get out of the area. But as of late Monday, he was holding out little hope that his home had survived.
For Zack Schieberl, 18, the nightmare found him home alone. It began at 1:30 a.m. with a call from a friend who said he was being evacuated. He soon understood why. “I had trouble seeing the other side of my bedroom because the smoke was so thick,” he said. “My eyes were watering.”
Schieberl, whose parents were in Tennessee, quickly called his sister, Sarah Wilson, who lived next door on San Miguel Road. “I said, ‘We need to leave like now.’ And at that point I just grabbed the dog, the cat, the computer, my phone and my school bag, and I threw them in the car.”
Moments later he, his sister, her husband and their two kids, ages 5 and 2, were in cars and heading out. “It was a little scary trying to evacuate by myself in the middle of the night, but I got out of there,” he said.
They were fortunate that they did, because not long after the home that Zack’s father, Dan Schieberl, had built by himself 20 years earlier was gone. So was his sister’s home and that of a friend three doors down, as well as most of the neighborhood.
“The only thing I regret is not being about to grab more things.” He said. “I wasn’t even able to grab my wallet. But I’m glad my pets are OK.”
Tricia Anderson Woods also found herself at the wrong end of this urban wildfire that seemed to sweep down off of Fountaingrove and blast its way across Highway 101 through the Coffey Park neighborhood early Monday. It became clear to her what was about to happen at about 1:30 a.m. when she and her son Brent took a drive in the area and found the area around the Applebee’s Grill and Bar in flames. She shot home and had her three children, ages 12, 14 and 18, pack the car. “We had about a half hour to get out,” she said.
But getting out was the real nightmare for them. “Traffic was unbelievable,” she said. “We were stopped in one place for 45 minutes.” That was when the embers started coming down on them. They managed to escape harm. But their house didn’t. “It’s all gone,” she said. Including the 1968 Corvette that she had stored in the garage, a classic she has owned for nearly 20 years.
“It doesn’t feel real,” she said.
No it doesn’t. But these, I guess, are the worst kind of nightmares — the real ones. The ones that all happen so fast and then never seem to end.
Let’s hope this one ends today.
Paul Gullixson is editorial director for The Press Democrat. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.