PD Editorial: A community tested by fire

Bill Stites watches his neighborhood burn in Fountaingrove, Monday Oct. 9, 2017 in Santa Rosa. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2017


Sometime in the future, when another fire erupts in the middle of the night, North Coast residents will recall the Tubbs fire of 2017.

Right now, however, we’re still in the middle of the storm. At least three voracious fires, the largest racing across the ridgetops from Calistoga to Santa Rosa, broke out overnight Sunday, consuming tens of thousands of acres and sparking additional fires in Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties as people gathered what they could and fled for their lives.

As the sun rose Monday, the breadth of the devastation became clear.

Large parts of Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park, Sky Farm and Fountaingrove neighborhoods were reduced to ashes, with rows of chimneys all that remained on some streets.

Familiar landmarks and businesses — Santa Rosa’s historic Round Barn and the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts, Chateau St. Jean winery and the Sonoma lavender farm in Kenwood — were damaged or destroyed. The list continued to grow through the day Monday.

Emergency management officials estimate that at least 1,500 structures burned in an area stretching from Napa to Sonoma and Santa Rosa to Ukiah. By late Monday, 11 people were confirmed dead, and authorities said more fatalities are likely.

It will be days, perhaps longer, before all the damage can be tallied. But it’s likely the Tubbs fire will rank among Northern California’s worst disasters.

Lake County residents endured three conflagrations that destroyed more than 2,000 homes in 2015. In 1991, the Oakland Hills fire killed 25 people and leveled 3,000 homes. For Santa Rosa, it’s been more than 50 years since an out-of-control wildfire threatened so many homes. The Hanly fire started Sept. 19, 1964 on Mount St. Helena and was finally halted almost a week later near the Journey’s End Mobile Home Park in Santa Rosa.

Journey’s End wasn’t spared by the Tubbs fire.

Our hearts ache for friends and neighbors who lost homes or businesses to the fires burning this week, and we share the apprehension of those who are waiting to learn whether theirs survived.

At the same time, we’re inspired by the emerging stories of people who rushed to help others as flames approached in the wee hours. Many people phoned neighbors or banged on their doors to make sure they got away safely. As emergency shelters filled up, people came to donate time, money and supplies for those who had to evacuate on a moment’s notice.

As residents headed out, firefighters and other first-responders headed in — some wondering whether their own homes were in the fire’s path.

With air support unavailable in the dark, firefighters struggled to make progress against a blaze fueled by 50 mph wind gusts that rained ash and embers across a wide area.

Weather conditions began to improve Monday afternoon, but some fires could burn for days. When the last one is out, many people will be without shelter, without jobs, without transportation. Rebuilding will take time, resources and ingenuity.

This is a generous community. It has come back from fires and other disasters before. We’re confident it will meet this challenge as well — coming back stronger than ever and leaving memories of the Tubbs fire of 2017 for the history books.