North Bay consumed in ‘hellish’ series of blazes as death toll rises

Early Monday morning, Mary and Geoffrey Brunet awoke to a knock at their door. A wildfire was barrelling toward their home of nearly two decades in a box canyon out in Wine Country.

The couple escaped with family photographs and their dog to the nearby First United Methodist Church where Mary Brunet works, opening up the doors to the public as an evacuation center.

They would not learn until later that day that the North Valley Fire brought their Santa Rosa home to ashes. By the afternoon, nearly all that remained was a chiminea in the backyard and the burned-out frame of a Volvo.

SEE RELATED: North Bay residents displaced by fires find shelter in Santa Rosa community center

“We just sent our youngest off to college, and we were getting ready to celebrate our empty nest,” said Mary Brunet, her hands covered in black soot. “I didn’t know it would be this empty.”

High winds and dry air fueled more than a dozen wildfires in the North Bay on Sunday night, leading to the deaths of at least nine people in Sonoma and Napa counties. Gov. Jerry Brown issued a state of emergency for the region as the fires consumed tens of thousands of acres and damaged an estimated 1,500 structures. The fires sent smoke throughout the Bay Area.

“This is the worst fire I’ve ever seen,” said Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane. “It’s horrible. It’s devastating. It’s hellish. You don’t see urban fires like this.”

SEE RELATED: At least nine dead in North Bay fires

Spot fires sprung up at businesses and homes around the devastated town of Santa Rosa on Monday afternoon. Flames shot out of gas lines in the gray and black flat land that was the Journey’s End Mobile Home Park for seniors.

Priest Morgan, a 62-year-old resident and U.S. Army veteran, may be responsible for saving the last standing block of mobile homes in the park. The former paramedic said he commandeered a hose from firefighters battling a blaze at the adjacent Kaiser Permanente hospital and attacked the flames engulfing his neighbors’ homes.

“We saved it,” said Morgan, who had the help of three firefighters after a fire captain realized he was battling the blaze alone. “They came here because the captain followed the hose, and who was at the end of the hose was me.”

Morgan said he fought the fire in the early morning hours to protect his new Harley Davidson. While he saved his motorcycle, Morgan watched as 30-foot flames destroyed dozens of homes in the neighborhood.

“They lost everything,” Morgan said. “They lost it all, and they’re all grandmas and grandpas. They’re not young and they’re not healthy, they can’t go out and do anything. Hopefully they have insurance.”

“These things go up so fast,” Morgan said, before snapping his fingers. “That quick.”

On Monday afternoon, Phillip Blackman stood on the sidewalk drinking a beer as he looked at the burned-down houses in his neighborhood. The Santa Rosa resident said he was surprised to learn that his home was still standing.

“I’m always worried about earthquakes,” Blackman said. “A fire, never would have even thought it.”

The wildfires had displaced as many as 20,000 residents by the afternoon and prompted emergency officials to set up evacuation centers and overnight shelters across the region.

The American Red Cross served breakfast Monday morning to 700 residents displaced by fire at the Finley Community Center in Santa Rosa. As ash fell from the hazy sky, evacuees covered their faces in bandanas or surgical masks.

“We just finished registering a lot of people,” said Roy Pitts, a spokesperson for the Red Cross. “We haven’t even finished the page count yet.”

Pitts said the Red Cross will be providing food and shelter free of cost at the shelter for at least the next few days.

“People are really calm and just sort of waiting for the next thing to happen,” Pitts continued. “The situation is fluid out in the hills right now. The No. 1 question is, ‘When can I go home?’ and we don’t quite know that yet.”

Ryan Koven, 32, was visiting his parents in Santa Rosa from New York City when firefighters banged on the door at 1:30 a.m. Monday.

“We had from the time they knocked on the door to the time we got to the car about two minutes,” Koven said. “We grabbed everything we could. We didn’t grab any clothes. This is what I was wearing when I was sleeping.”

Koven said he saw the fire descend toward his parents’ house as his family drove away.

“If they hadn’t have knocked on our door, we wouldn’t be here,” he said. “That neighborhood is gone.”

Koven said his family will be at the Finley Community Center for at least a few days unless the insurance company can cover the costs of a hotel.

“Nobody is really talking about what happened,” Koven said. “Everyone is trying to go about getting food and getting sleep … I haven’t really heard much talk about what happened to people’s houses.”

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