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Gratitude: See our special coverage of heartwarming stories following the Sonoma County fires here.

Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

Fran Bengsston’s Sunday evening was a quiet one.

Sitting in her Coffey Park home, Bengsston and her boyfriend clinked champagne glasses after making good progress on their weeks-long roofing project, and then went to bed.

Around 11 p.m. they awakened, smelling smoke. Glancing outside the window, they saw the wind blowing hard.

“I thought it was a grass fire,” said Bengsston. “My boyfriend went outside to check the roof, because we still had a few roofing materials up on top of the house.”

The couple looked online and read that the fire might be in Kenwood, so Bengsston’s boyfriend decided to head home to his house in the Annadel Heights area to turn the sprinklers on and make sure everything checked out.

“I closed all my doors and windows and went back to sleep,” said Bengsston, completely unaware she would be evacuated hours later.

Around 2:40 a.m., Bengsston heard a loud knocking at her door. She didn’t immediately recognize the young man. It was her new neighbor, Donny Riveras, at the door.

Riveras, 21, had only moved into the neighborhood a little over week prior. Bengsston and her boyfriend would see him coming and going while working on the roof. He lived across the street, and she had meant to take a bottle of wine over to welcome him to the neighborhood. But here he was, standing on her doorstep in the middle of the night.

Riveras and his roommate, Jon Edmonds, had been up for nearly two hours, having been awakened by the gusts of wind.

“We immediately called 911 and they told us there were 10 fires in Santa Rosa,” said Riveras. “But [said] none were in our area and told us to call back if we saw flames.”

Riveras and his roommate didn’t wait. Edmonds told his girlfriend to pack up their dogs and head to safety. Riveras decided to drive around to find out if he could see anything.

“I got into my truck and drove down Hopper Lane and saw the flames 100 feet away from the park,” said Riveras. “So I immediately started evacuating neighbors.”

His first stop? Bengsston’s house across the street.

“He told me: ‘The fire is coming, you have five minutes to get out!’” said Bengsston. “He told me to head away from the park, and I couldn’t even see across the street because the smoke was so black.”

Bengsston tried twice to shut her front door against the heavy winds and finally slammed it the third time. She ran into her bedroom, quickly dressed and threw a few things into a bag.

Across the street from Bengsston, a car blew 133 feet into another neighbor’s foundation.

“I heard an explosion and I thought: ‘I’ve got to get out of here ––I can’t wait any longer,’” said Bengsston. “No one has ever seen anything like this before.”

Riveras was also hearing explosions in the distance, but kept heading down Dogwood Drive and the neighboring Mocha Drive to warn more residents. In all, he knocked on close to 100 doors.

“I just had so much adrenaline that I kind of blacked out and just started banging on people’s doors, and I could barely open my eyes because of how thick the smoke was,” said Riveras. “There were giant waves of wind that were mostly flames.”

Gratitude: See our special coverage of heartwarming stories following the Sonoma County fires here.

Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

When Riveras finally left after knocking on as many of his neighbors’ doors as he could, the third house down from him, toward Coffey Park, was fully engulfed in flames.

Reflecting a few weeks after the fires, Bengsston is extraordinarily grateful for her new neighbor and his timely warning.

“He says he’s not a hero, but he’s my hero,” said Bengsston. “I’m tearing up right now because I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him.”

Despite losing the new house he was renting, everything in it, and suffering severe damage to his vehicle, Riveras has no regrets about his decision to alert fellow neighbors to the incoming danger.

“If I could do it again, I would do it exactly the same way I did it,” said Riveras. “Things can be replaced; people can’t.”

Riveras noted the importance of emergency preparedness and the lack of readiness his neighborhood experienced.

“Surprisingly, while I was evacuating neighbors, I noticed there was not one other person knocking on doors, everyone just got in their cars and left,” said Riveras. “People really need to start playing out scenarios in their head before they happen so you have somewhat of an idea how to react.”

For Bengsston and Riveras, gratitude is a common theme in their thoughts on the aftermath.

“I’m grateful for my family and everything I have right now, and I’m grateful for Donny knocking on my door at 2:40 in the morning,” said Bengsston. “It’s brought my family and I much closer –– tragedy has a way of bringing people closer together and changing your perspective on things.”

Bengsston later returned to the remains of her home to try and salvage a few keepsakes, in particular her father’s high school marksmanship medals, her mother’s pearls and her grandmother’s rhinestones.

“I found the medals - they’re badly burned, but I’m hoping to get them restored,” said Bengsston. “My mother’s pearls were totally gone and I found small traces –– the prongs –– of my grandmother’s stones.”

Bengsston also regretted not grabbing family quilts from the house before she escaped.

“You know it’s just stuff, and my sister really put it into perspective for me,” said Bengsston. “She said our mom is wearing that jewelry up above and the family quilts and my sister’s paintings are adorning their beds and their walls up in heaven.”

Bengsston believes firmly the neighborhood will recover.

“It’s going to rise from the ashes,” said Bengsston. “I’ve talked to many of neighbors and they’re all going to rebuild and the community will return.”

Riveras is currently staying with family, but is uncertain if he will remain in the area. He is considering moving to Montana.

“I’m just grateful that I could do my part in making sure people were safe,” said Riveras.

For Bengsston, who will celebrate her 60th birthday the day after Thanksgiving, the early morning hours of October 9 and Riveras’ part in it will always remain a reason to be grateful.

“This birthday is going to real special,” said Bengsston. “I’m confident in my community and I know we’ll rise, just like a phoenix from the ashes.”

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