'How do you put an entire neighborhood back together?' Santa Rosa reels after historic wildfire levels homes

No place was more familiar to Brady Harvell than Mocha Lane.

He grew up in one of the houses lining the quiet street in Santa Rosa. As a kid, he spent countless hours cruising it on his bike, often ending up at nearby Coffey Park, where he first kissed a girl under the swing set.

He left to join the Army, and when he returned, his parents hung his dog tags from a photo of him in uniform on top of the television set in the living room.

But Tuesday, a day after wildfires laid waste to parts of Santa Rosa, Napa and other communities in wine country, everything Harvell knew — the house, Mocha Lane, the whole neighborhood — was gone, replaced by a black and gray landscape of charred houses, cars and trees.

Harvell, 31, sifted through the rubble of his parents’ home with a small garden spade, looking for the dog tags and trying to make sense of what had happened.

“How do you put an entire neighborhood back together?” he wondered aloud, straightening up from his search to look around at the devastation. “It is so much more than just mortgages and appliances.”

Santa Rosa was left reeling from the Tubbs fire, which ignited in the hills above the city and rode fierce Diablo winds down into its streets. On Tuesday evening, the death toll from Northern California fires stood at 17, including 11 in Sonoma County. Hundreds of homes, along with schools and big-box stores, had been destroyed. Thousands of residents were in shelters and hotels after being forced to flee their homes and two hospitals.

Officials said the Tubbs fire — one of 17 burning in the state — had consumed 27,000 acres. Hundreds of firefighters continued battling the blaze as Tuesday brought a respite when winds eased.

But Ken Pimlott, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, cautioned that the wildfire was still very much a threat.

“We are far from out of the woods,” Pimlott said. “We’ve got several days of fire weather conditions to come.”

Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano said his department had been deluged by nearly 250 missing-person reports from people unable to locate friends and family in the frantic hours after the fire swept into the city.

He said he expected that most, if not all, of the people were safe, attributing the confusion to communications difficulties, including disrupted cellphone service caused by downed signal towers. Many of the people forced to evacuate were in assisted living centers and were hard to reach, he said.

By midafternoon, a team of deputies had found 57 of the people who had been reported missing.

As the extent of the devastation became clear Tuesday, federal and state officials made emergency declarations needed to clear the way for additional assistance to be sent to the region — a well-worn routine in a state with a long history of wildfires.

Vice President Mike Pence said in a visit to California’s emergency management headquarters that President Trump has approved a “major disaster declaration” for California. And more than 200 additional law enforcement personnel from outlying cities and counties, as well as the California National Guard, were called into the Santa Rosa region to assist with searches and to guard against looting, Giordano said.

The sheriff urged patience, saying many of the burned areas remained unsafe, with spot fires still burning and many downed power lines yet to be repaired.

“Getting people back in their homes soon is important to us as well, but the most important thing is keeping them safe,” he said. The remains of one of the dead were still in a home that was too hot to enter, he added.

Residents described a frantic race for survival late Sunday night and early Monday as winds blowing as high as 80 mph hurtled embers into housing developments, igniting spot fires that quickly exploded into full blazes.

“It just came through there, like a blowtorch,” said Eric Anderson, a local contractor, who described his narrow escape Sunday night from his home in the hills north of U.S. 101. “I saw fire trucks racing up ... then, five minutes later, I saw them racing down. I said, ‘Time to get out of here.’ ”

The fickleness of the fire left a lucky few wondering how they had been spared in neighborhoods that were largely destroyed.

In the once-upscale neighborhood of Hidden Valley, Lance Thompson, 75, a retired real estate appraiser and longtime Santa Rosa resident, took in a scene of broken, blackened utility poles and large tangles of smoldering power lines. Some streets were blocked by yellow tape warning: “Police crime scene. Do not cross.”

Most of the homes were reduced to ashes, twisted metal and broken water pipes splashing onto heaps of charred crossbeams. In many places, the only things left standing were the skeletal trunks and limbs of scorched pine trees and dozens of lonesome chimneys. Thompson’s house was untouched.

“I just can’t believe this,” he muttered, shaking his head.

A few miles away, at the Journey’s End mobile home park for seniors, several sons and daughters returned to their parents’ homes to see what could be salvaged.

Almost all of the park’s 160 homes had been destroyed, though some on Sahara Street were still intact. The street, which abuts a hospital, seemed to be where firefighters had made a stand.

Carrie Reindahl said her mom and stepfather got out in time, awakened by the sound of their American flag whipping in the wind outside. By then, two trailers and a tree nearby were already on fire, Reindahl said.

“They tried to wake up some neighbors, and they barely got out with the clothes on their back,” she said.

Reindahl managed to pull out her grandmother’s collection of porcelain Kewpie dolls from the rubble, though some of them had been broken.

“It’s just so devastating,” she said, looking at the wreckage of her mother’s home of 25 years. “She’s 85 and he’s 87. How do you start all over?”

Reindahl said her mom and stepdad had been able to drive out in their own car, but she echoed the worries of authorities who warned that the fires’ death toll could climb.

“A lot of them were really, really old,” she said of the park’s residents. “And trailers go up like a match.”

Back on Mocha Lane, Harvell continued his seemingly futile search for his dog tags in the ashes of his parents’ house. A few blocks away, an older couple who had not had time to take anything when they escaped the coming fire searched for the only thing the man said they cared about — the urn holding their son’s ashes.

And Pam Hopkins sifted through the wreckage of her home with her stepson. Some of the few things she found were old baseball cards her late husband collected.

She said she was dumbfounded that a wildfire could level a suburban neighborhood far away from the woods. Her insurance company, she said, had rated her home as in one of the most fire-safe neighborhoods in Santa Rosa.

“We had a very tightknit community. On our cul-de-sac, we had barbecues and parties; if you needed anything, you just knocked on your neighbor’s door,” she said.

After two hours searching, Harvell reached into a pile of ash. “Got it! Oh my God! Got it!”

Marveling over the dirtied and bent dog tags in the palm of his hand, he said of the fire, “It took all our memories, except this one.”

He then pulled his cellphone from his pocket and dialed a familiar number.

“Love you, Brady,” his father said from the other side of the line. “Love you, Dad,” Harvell replied.

Sahagun, Willon and Agrawal reported from Santa Rosa, and Rubin from Los Angeles.

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phil.willon@latimes.com

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nina.agrawal@latimes.com

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