Self-described night owl Heidi Kulick was watching TV in the wee hours of the morning Oct. 9, following sketchy news reports of a fire blowing through Santa Rosa’s northeast side. Still, she wasn’t too concerned for her own safety until an urgent bulletin broke into the regular programming with word that the fire had leaped over the freeway.
Most people would have jumped out of bed and into action. But Kulick is a paraplegic. Born with a spinal defect, she has been bed-bound with associated health problems for two years.
Her housemate and helper Ed Corn fortunately, was awakened just then by a commotion outside their three-bedroom home on Coffey Lane, where the fire was headed.
“I looked out and everybody was in their cars already evacuating, honking their horns. Bushes appeared to be just randomly bursting into flames,” said Corn, who raced into Kulick’s room, grabbed her wheelchair and said, “We’ve got to get you out of here.”
With fire already bearing down on the neighborhood, the 59-year-old professional gardener herded Kulick’s cat Missy into a carrier and threw some blankets into a bathtub and ran water over them; he figured he might need them and feared the water would shut off.
“I just knew that we would make it if I could get her to the park,” he said. “It’s all green. There are no trees.”
Corn wheeled his friend, still in her nightgown, directly across the street and into Coffey Park, where he left her in the middle of the lawn before racing back to the house he get his dog, Gypsy, a blonde husky mix, and then come back with the car.
But the electricity went out in the house, and the frightened dog hid under the porch.
“The window blew out in the kitchen and there were a thousand tiki torch flames on the back fence,” he remembered. Tar chips from the roof were flying like bullets from a machine gun. There was a 25-foot tall cobalt-and-white flame roaring beside his truck. He would have been burned up if he tried to reach it. Running out of oxygen in the house, Corn grabbed the blankets and put them over his head as he ran a gauntlet of flaming bushes on both sides just outside the door. He burned both arms on the way out.
Corn put the wet blankets over Kulick’s head and went back a third time to look for Gypsy, but found the house engulfed in flames.
By this time, anyone who was going to make it out of the neighborhood was gone and Corn and Kulick began a four-hour trip through hell’s inferno.
“There were cars exploding and pieces of buildings flying over our heads,” said Kulick, “At one point I narrowly missed getting my head hit by a gas pipe. It was like being in the center of a tornado.”
For hours, Corn wheeled Kulick through the park in what he described as “dance with the devil’s pitchfork,” moving over and over again to different corners of the park, dodging flying embers and fiery debris, or fleeing from toxic gas or searing heat as flames ripped through homes ringing the park, toppling them one by one. The park was lit only by an orange glow.
“It was dark; it was smoky; I couldn’t even tell which direction I was facing,” Kulick recalls. “I just know everywhere I looked, one second I wouldn’t see fire, the next second, a fire would be starting.”
Every half hour they would hear another street ignite with the same cacophony of gas grills and bottles exploding. At one point a man, fleeing from another neighborhood, drove by and also took refuge in the park.
Corn’s face and arms were covered with first- and second-degree burns, but he said he didn’t feel anything in his zeal to survive.
“My faith was unshakable. I said to myself, ‘She’s not going down.’ That one would have been on me,’” he said, his voice catching.
When houses on one side of the park ignited, the heat became so intense it would have cooked them to death, sending them fleeing to another pocket of the park.
Corn said they moved 20 times in constant search for safety.
All the while a disoriented Kulick, protected under the blankets, clung “for dear life” to her cat carrier, realizing that Missy was all she had left in the world.” Kulick is an only child and both of her parents are deceased. “The wind was so intense I kept feeling like she was going to fly away,” she said of her beloved cat. “I kept chanting to myself, ‘Wake up. Wake up. Wake up. This has to be a nightmare.’”
Finally, around 6 a.m. Ron Lunardi, the veteran chief of the Occidental Fire Department, was sent into Coffey Park in his chief’s vehicle to search for anything that might be left to defend and save. He didn’t expect to find survivors. Approaching the park he saw a mess of metal, bits of roof, tree limbs and a burned car turned upside down. He was stunned to see three people in the park.
“It was shocking to see anybody there. It was incredible. I was just speechless,” he said of the devastation in the park and the once vibrant neighborhood around it.
“The woman wasn’t burned because Ed had protected her with blankets but he had burns on his arm and face,” Lunardi said. “If the park wasn’t there and they had to walk through the fire I don’t think they would have made it. It was a smart decision.”
The fire chief called three ambulances. It was only after they reached Memorial Hospital that the reality of what she had just survived — and lost — hit Kulick. The house, where she had lived for 12 years, and everything in it, was all she had left of her family. She said it felt like losing her mother all over again. Corn, also an only child, lost his gentle dog, Gypsy, all of his family photos and memorabilia in the fire, as well as his drum collection and work tools,
Kulick has spent the past month in Memorial, recovering from smoke inhalation, while Corn stayed with friends in Santa Rosa. The pair feel blessed by the support and loving gestures large and small that they have received from friends and the community, including a wheelchair accessible van. Meanwhile, they have secured a temporary home at Vineyard Commons and plan to start piecing their lives back together.
“You knew you were in good hands,” he reminded her affectionately, during a recent visit to her bedside at Memorial. “I made sure Heidi knew she wasn’t abandoned in that park.”