Destructive fire turns suburban tracts into burned-out wasteland in Santa Rosa

The fire spared little as it swept through the idyllic northern neighborhoods of Santa Rosa.

The McDonald’s, the Applebee’s, the Kmart, the round red barn built in 1899, the neat-as-a-pin tract homes — all burned to the ground.

In the early-morning darkness, residents grabbed what they could and fled. Patients at hospitals and nursing homes were evacuated on gurneys. Winery owners left their vineyards behind, not knowing whether their grapevines would be there when they returned.

The Fountaingrove Inn, a Hilton hotel and a high school were leveled, as were homes in the community of Kenwood and at a mobile home park off the 101 Freeway.

The Sonoma County Sheriff's Office reported seven fire-related deaths. By Monday evening, the Tubbs fire had burned more than 35,000 acres, Napa County Supervisor Diane Dillon said.

In Coffey Park, a subdivision of quiet culs-de-sac west of the 101 Freeway, many homes were reduced to smoldering rubble. Swaths of suburbia became wasteland, with brick chimneys and denuded trees the only objects left standing.

As the sun began to set Monday evening, Brent Colombo sorted through the ruins of the house on Tuliptree Road that he and his wife bought three years ago. A china cup and saucer from their wedding were the only intact items he found.

Colombo had just finished landscaping his home and was about to start remodeling the bathrooms. He and his wife chose the neighborhood because it was a good place to raise a family. Their 6-year-old son’s elementary school was down the street.

As the flames closed in, they left with a few family photos and some jewelry.

“We had about 10 minutes to get out of the house,” said Colombo, 41, who owns a video security business. “It was coming fast. We were choking” on the smoke.

Here in the suburban flatlands of Northern California, surrounded by redwoods and other greenery, Colombo never thought wildfires were a threat.

But high winds, dry vegetation and low humidity created conditions more typical of Southern California, said Cal Fire director Ken Pimlott.

“Late last night, starting around 10 o’clock, you had 50- to 60-mph winds that surfaced — really across the whole northern half of the state,” he said. “Every spark is going to ignite.”

In another part of Coffey Park on Monday afternoon, Bill Mikan grabbed bucket after bucket of water to douse burning embers on the ruins of his next-door neighbor’s house.

Mikan was one of the lucky ones: His home was still standing. He estimated it was one of about seven on his block that survived the Tubbs fire.

The neighbors whose house burned have young twins, Mikan said. They had moved in only recently after losing their previous house in a fire, he said.

Mikan, who lives with his wife and daughter, said he smelled smoke about 9 p.m. Sunday and called the fire department. The dispatcher, already overwhelmed, said she could not send a firetruck unless there were flames visible.

About 2 a.m., Mikan looked out his window and saw a cloud of burning embers flying overhead. Neighbors were going door to door telling everyone to get out.

“I’m blessed that they saved my house,” said Mikan, 58, who works for the county. “But I feel terrible that my neighbors weren’t so lucky.”

The Mikans headed to a shelter at the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building with their golden retriever, Buddy.

When shelter workers began serving food, people with dogs had to leave.

Back at their house on Monday, the Mikans exchanged bad news about the local institutions they had assumed would always be there — Kmart, Arby’s, the historic Round Barn. Audrey Mikan turned 20 on Monday, but there was no cause for celebration.

In the Fountaingrove neighborhood on the eastern edge of Santa Rosa, Sonoma County sheriff’s Det. Troy Newton saw the “growing red snake” of fire moving toward him Sunday night.

He told his wife to get ready to leave with their 4-year-old son. Then, even though he was off-duty, he started banging on neighbors’ doors, hitting 40 homes in 40 minutes.

“It was boom, boom, boom. Ring the door bell. Boom boom — until someone inside got the message,” said Newton, 46.

Many homes in Newton’s neighborhood survived. But dozens just down the hill were reduced to ash.

By early Monday evening, the evacuation center at the Veterans Memorial Building was at its capacity of 400 people.

Among the evacuees were hospital patients and nursing home residents. Nurses and doctors monitored blood pressures and glucose levels, and tended to those whose breathing issues were aggravated by the smoke.

“It is unusual to have to evacuate a hospital,” said Joan Acquistapace, a school nurse who fled her home in Rincon Valley and was helping with the patients. “What can you do? You can’t very well keep the patients in a place that’s going to burn down.”

Colombo, the Coffey Park resident, said he plans to rebuild his house. He will look for a rental close by so his son can continue to go to the same school — if it reopens soon.

Willon, Agrawal and Sahagun reported from Santa Rosa. Times staff writers Javier Panzar, Alene Tchekmedyian and Dakota Smith contributed to this report from Los Angeles.

phil.willon@latimes.com

nina.agrawal@latimes.com

louis.sahagun@latimes.com

cindy.chang@latimes.com

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