'My street was burning'

California wildfires scorch area bigger than NYC
California wildfires scorch area bigger than NYC

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Story highlights

  • Terry Rowan was determined to save his Santa Rosa house during wildfires, staying behind after evacuation to douse embers with water from his hoses
  • Rowan: It proved hopeless. He watched his neighborhood burn as he fled. Hearts broken, houses destroyed. Many wonder what they will do.

Terry Rowan is a retired teacher, entrepreneur, author and poet. A father and grandfather, he lives with his wife and their poodle in Santa Rosa, California. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)April is not the cruelest month. October is.

My wife and I have lived in Santa Rosa for seven years. Our house was in a development called Fountaingrove, its name taken from a 5-mile road running along the spine of an 800-foot granite mountain in northeastern Santa Rosa.
    Rita and Terry Rowan
    The 650 homes here were completed in 2000, ranging in size from 2,000 square feet to well over 5,000 feet. In winter and spring, when the fields greened up, wild flowers sprouted, the lush wineries awoke from their slumbers to start another year of producing their pinot noirs, it was a place that Gatsby might have dreamed of, lights winking through redwoods and sequoias, hinting at secret dreams.
    Fountaingrove also sits three miles away from a major earthquake fault that erupted in 1906, killing 30 people here. But on a Sunday night into the early hours of Monday, a perfect storm of weather conditions conspired to produce an altogether different kind of hell.
    We had lived in San Diego for 25 years, and we were familiar with a thing called Santa Ana Windstorms: super-hot air in the deserts a hundred miles east would get stirred up by winds gusting to 70 mph, the humidity would drop so low your skin would crack, and utility poles would start to fall.
    Fire would break out in seconds, then race down valleys and gullies towards the west, toward some of the most densely populated areas in the United States. In 2003 and 2007, those two fires in San Diego collectively wiped out over 5,000 structures, mostly homes. Flames 40 feet high leaped freeways, gobbled up hills, racing their way to the ocean. But the true enemy turned out not to be those flames. The real culprit in those fires was the most pedestrian thing: embers.
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    Embers: inch-square pieces of burning wood, white hot with the blowing wind, oxygenating them like a monstrous bellows, flying helter-skelter like malevolent insects, raining down in torrents, bouncing and scuttling around like hungry locusts. In San Diego, these embers landed in yards, on decks, so hot they immediately started fires. The worst was when they blew up against any wood.
    Most of the houses destroyed in those two fires succumbed from embers.
    At 9:30 p.m. on that Sunday night, my wife and I were wide-eyed at the blowing wind in Santa Rosa, rattling our windows and nerves. We were watching local TV news. Our skin scratched.
    And then at 11 p.m. we saw the first fire from our upstairs bedroom, maybe a mile away to the northeast, growing and banking in the increasing smoke. The power went out once, came on again, then went out for good at midnight. My wife began to collect a few things for an evacuation.
    But I was remembering San Diego, especially how a few souls, ignoring the mandatory evacuation orders from police and fire officials, stayed behind to hook up hoses and start drenching their lawns and gardens with the sprinkler system. I told my wife I was staying. I wouldn't let our house burn down.
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    We had had this discussion many times over our years in Santa Rosa. She was dead set against it, as a theory, and as an actual practice. She is more intelligent than I am. She left at 1 a.m., terribly worried about me and my decision to stay. She told me where she would be waiting for me.
    At 2 a.m., I heard bumping on the roof. I looked out from an upstairs window: embers were striking the backyard cement deck, yard, over the fence, everywhere. I ran downstairs, started the hoses, and ran to man them wherever I saw a flame start up.
    For the first 10 minutes, running back and forth from both all four sides of the house, I kept pace with the embers.
    But it was amazing, in a quite horrible way: the grass and plants, other than short sessions of regular watering, had seen no rain for seven straight months. When many embers hit, it was more like an explosion than a sparked fire. Whole plant systems just burst into flame, trees went on fire in an instant. I was increasingly swallowing billows of fetid, toxic, yellow air. My eyes were burning, my chest choked with smoke.
    I ran to the front of the house: the neighbor's fence to my left, just 15 minutes after the ember rain started, was on fire. That fence led right to his house. The house two plots away was already on fire. My breath seized up.
    In the back, the fence between my neighbor's house on our right was ablaze. We had just had it installed.
    Up on a small ridge above my house, where I could see the roofs of two houses above a tree line, both were on fire.
    I looked at the 1-inch hose in my hands: hopeless.
    Embers continued to rain down. They owned the fight, the night. It was a kind of Dresden. My neighborhood, all 25 houses on my street, was going to die.
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    I ran inside my house, grabbed my computer, a few files, threw them in my car. I forgot our passports, my meds, paintings, photographs, a thousand medals I had won in track and field, all my children's memorabilia, my poetry to my beautiful, astounding wife. All gone.
    My street was burning. The next street to Fountaingrove was burning. At the intersection sat a police car, abandoned, burning from the inside. Descending the hill on Fountaingrove, branches and whole trees were blocking my way, and I had to negotiate my way around them when I could, use the other side up when I had to.
    Half way down, a woman in an SUV stopped me, leaned out and asked what was happening? I was so stunned by the fatuity of her question I didn't know what to say, and uttered finally, "The neighborhood is on fire." She asked what was the way out? I told her to follow me, but while descending further, she would sometimes veer off into a side road, and I would wait, knowing that was a terrible decision, because everywhere one looked, every house was on fire.
    When she would come back, I would continue to push slowly down. We passed a dead deer, a dead dog, a dead skunk. At the bottom of the hill, at Mendocino Avenue, which runs parallel to Route 101, I stopped my car and asked her if she knew her way to a shelter. She stared at me, not crying but plainly disoriented. I told her to follow me, but as soon as we started down Mendocino, she pulled off the road, turned back.
    I wonder if she made it, if she's alive.
    One street down, at another intersection, a police auxiliary volunteer, standing under a blinking red light, all alone at 3 a.m. on Monday morning, stopped me. I rolled down my window. He leaned in, said "I don't know what to do."
    Indeed.
    Hearts broken in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and here, in Sonoma and Napa. Houses ruined; ours was destroyed. Lots of people who don't know what to do. And we are among them.
    I suppose we will work it out over a little time.
    I was working with a local group of wonderful folks to start a nonprofit with innovative ideas to the homeless problem in Santa Rosa. Two thousand of those folks sleeping under highway overpasses. That number suddenly swells to another 3,000-4,000.
    Lots of us have resources to gain our footing soon. It's not the same for everyone, is it? But I never dreamed I would be negotiating my way out of homelessness as a co-combatant, did I? We're all a second away from something. Sometimes it's a flood, this time it's a fire.
    For Gatsby, it was the illusion of recovered love at Daisy's dock. For us, it was the illusion that sitting on a pile of granite made us impervious to nature's whims.