Like almost everyone else in and around Santa Rosa, Tony Niel and his family were fast asleep when the robocall came early in the morning of Oct. 9, ordering an immediate evacuation.
Niel jumped up, looked out the window, and saw a wall of flame. He and his wife, Carol, barely had time to hustle their two young sons, Jordan and Mason, and their dog into their car and truck and convoy down Mark West Springs Road to Highway 101.
They followed a long train of fellow evacuees, with houses and hillsides lighting up around them. But the freeway was packed, smoke and embers were jumping all lanes near the Luther Burbank Center, so they took the River Road exit and conferred.
“We decided Carol and the kids had to work their way back up (side roads) toward a friend’s house,” said Niel, a Santa Rosa Fire Department firefighter. “And I had to get to work.”
That was perhaps the most traumatic moment of the many that followed for the Niel family: telling the kids that their father had to head back into the flames.
“They were crying, saying, ‘Daddy, don’t go, we don’t want you to die,’ ” said Niel. “Carol was crying. I was tearing up. We knew by then that our house was gone. I told them that I didn’t want to die either, that I was going to be very careful, but that I had to try to help people, because that’s what we do. I told them to listen to their mama, and then I worked my way down to Station 2 on Stony Point Road.”
Niel picked up fellow firefighter Drew Peterson at the station and the pair drove up to Fountaingrove, where they helped with evacuations. At one point they rescued Sonoma State University President Judy Sakaki and her husband, Patrick McCallum, as the couple fled barefoot down a street of smoking asphalt, the flames roaring down on them from all sides.
They were, in short, heroes — a tribute Niel downplays. There were a lot of heroes that night, he said.
But if Niel was a hero, he was also a victim. He and his family lost their home, along with virtually every possession. They had to live in an RV for 1½ months on property owned by Carol’s boss; later, they found a rental off 4th Street. They hope to rebuild. Someday.
Niel considers himself fortunate, given that his family is safe and they share a strong religious faith that sustains them. But it hasn’t been easy.
“It’s the emotional stuff that’s the hardest, not the material things,” said Niel. “You’re ripped out of your home, out of your comfort zone, the bed and routine you’ve known forever. I’m not going to lie — it’s extremely hard. We have our faith in God, and that’s what has kept us going on the tough days. But I feel we’ve been robbed of our sense of safety, and it’s hard to get that back.”
The October fires forced everyday people into heroic roles, rescuing others, making stands against the flames and coming to the aid of those who lost loved ones, their homes and businesses. Many of those on the front lines were first responders — firefighters, police officers and sheriff’s officials, paramedics and other medical personnel. They were called to help, whether by dispatch or by sheer sense of mission.
This story is part of a monthly series in 2018 chronicling the rebuilding efforts in Sonoma County’s four fire zones: Coffey Park, Fountaingrove, the greater Mark West area and Sonoma Valley. Read all of the Rebuild North Bay coverage here
Read all of the PD's fire coverage here