The sound of explosions woke Benjamin Rietman on Sunday night in his quiet Santa Rosa home. As he sprung out of bed, he noticed the strong odor of smoke filling the air. Rietman looked outside and quickly realized he was hearing the sound of utility pole transformers bursting throughout his neighborhood. He jumped in his car and began driving around nearby neighborhoods in an effort to locate a fire and lend a hand. What Rietman found was much worse than what he had expected – flames had engulfed the nearby neighborhoods of Shiloh Ridge, and they appeared to be spreading closer and closer to his home at an extremely fast rate. Winds of speeds up to 80 miles per hour ripped through the city as Rietman raced back to his house.
“I started spraying my house with water, but then the flames had engulfed the church and the horse ranch across the street. And I’m talking 25 feet in front of my eyes,” Rietman told The Inertia. “ I had no time to pack. Just some pictures. I ran to my neighbor’s [house] to wake them up, and they barely made it out by the time the flames had taken over our street.”
Rietman is only one of many who have lost their homes and belongings to the devastating firestorm reigning terror on Northern California’s North Bay area. Currently, a predicted number of 1,500 to 3,000 homes and structures have been burned down, with a fatality count above 20 by Wednesday evening that is only expected to grow. Families are still in the process of contacting and locating loved ones that are staying in the shelter of community members or shelters set up at local schools and community facilities. The missing persons reports related to this event are estimated in the 500s. The chaos that has ensued appears to be endless, as evacuation orders continue throughout Sonoma and Napa County, and repopulation is being prohibited in all of these regions. As if these terrible occurrences are not enough, the threat of looters runs rampant through these areas while folks fear the absolute worst.
My long summer of guiding in Montana came to a dismal end with the news of a tragic fire in my hometown of Santa Rosa, California – the place I’ve spent most of my life, and where I plan to spend the rest of it. I received a text at 3 a.m. It was a friend telling me my parents have been evacuated and are now safe. Due to the constant news updates from friends, family, and media outlets, I feared for the absolute worst. Social media flooded with photographs and videos of the neighborhoods that I once knew, now leveled and reduced to rubble. It seemed as though every twelfth Facebook post I saw was a friend grieving for their lost home. Now that I’m back in Santa Rosa, I’m experiencing first hand the chaos of these fires – firetrucks and police maintaining the safety of our city on every street corner, the orange haze of smoke filling the once clean air, and the sight of Santa Rosa citizens walking down the sidewalks with their faces covered by masks. This is the Santa Rosa that I have returned to.
From Sunday night through Monday morning high winds plagued the area, reported in the range of 40 to 80 miles per hour. These unstoppable winds resulted in the destruction of power lines, starting 14 different fires throughout the region. Various neighborhoods have been decimated, which are being fueled by the massive winds, allowing them to expand exponentially. These wildfires have burned approximately 170,000 acres of California, all with zero percent to single digit containment ratings. Some have been lucky enough to keep their homes, but the destruction continues to expand as winds are constantly changing. Fires are burning in various regions of the North Bay, destroying homes and public lands alike, including parts of two incredible state parks – Sugarloaf Ridge State Park and Annadel State Park – both known for their fantastic hiking, mountain biking, and wildlife viewing, along with some incredible vistas.
Maddy Thompson is a resident of the fountain grove region of Santa Rosa, a large neighborhood area that faced some of the city’s worst destruction. Most of her neighborhood was burned, but firefighters were able to save her house. It is now one of the very few homes still on the massive hill, which once housed many Santa Rosa residents.
“In Fountain Grove, practically 95 percent of the homes are gone. Our neighbor’s friend happened to drive by at the same moment our house caught fire,” Thompson said, “He called for fire trucks immediately and they were able to save my home. I’ve never been so grateful for anything in my entire life.”
These fires spanned for miles in this region, and they hopped from one neighborhood to the next. Tyler Box, a resident of a wooded neighborhood several miles away lost his family home. He describes the scene as “a war zone” from the Brush Creek neighborhoods continuing for several miles North, into the foothills surrounding the city.
California has declared a state of emergency, and federal aid is being given to the regions affected by this tragedy. It is clear that we’re not out of the woods yet, and there is still a long road ahead – fighting these destructive fires, and rebuilding the great California city that once was. The most important thing now is that we contribute in any way that we can, whether that be in aiding the families that have lost their homes and belongings, volunteering and donating to organizations like the American Red Cross, or giving food, water, and support to the excellent police, firefighters, first responders, soldiers, and volunteers that are relentlessly helping during this time of crisis.