Santa Rosa comes to terms with the scale of devastation: 3,000 buildings lost, many dead in fire

Santa Rosa comes to terms with the scale of devastation: 3,000 buildings lost, many dead in fire
Aerial view of the damage caused by wildfire that destroyed the Coffey Park neighborhood in Santa Rosa, Calif. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

After the fires had roared through, Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano drove through the wreckage of Santa Rosa's Larkfield-Wikiup neighborhood.

Twisted beams and garage doors crumpled like old newspapers had replaced street after street of tidy homes. The hubcaps from charred cars had melted into rivulets of gleaming aluminum that pooled in the gutters.


"I don't even think I understand what the damage toll is going to be, and I have a better handle on it than most," Giordano told The Times on Friday. "Santa Rosa will be a different planet. There is so much to rebuild. It will absolutely change the community."

Thousands of other Santa Rosa residents also struggled Friday to come to grips with the magnitude of their losses from a firestorm — among the state's most devastating — that has coursed through California wine country since Sunday night, causing at least 34 deaths and damaging thousands of buildings.

More than half of the confirmed fatalities came in Sonoma County. Santa Rosa, the county's largest city and home to 175,000 people, lost almost 3,000 buildings, including the hilltop house of the late Charles Schulz, the Peanuts cartoon creator.

The Charles M. Schulz Museum, perhaps the city's leading landmark, still stood, but two hotels — the 124-room luxury Fountaingrove Inn and the 250-room Hilton Sonoma Wine Country on 13 acres — were destroyed. Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey on Friday said that the city had sustained $1.2 billion in damage and that 5% of the housing stock was wiped out.

Santa Rosa started to come back to life early Friday, and some residents may be allowed to return home Saturday or Sunday, officials said.

But the threat of new damage from the far-from-controlled fire complex still hung over the region. Firefighters scrambled Friday to dig fire lines and bulldoze debris to gain an advantage over the blazes before the gusts that fanned the flames reached expected speeds of up to 40 mph later in the day along the ridges.

The Sonoma County Sheriff's Office on Friday issued a mandatory evacuation north of Highway 128 from Geysers to Chalk Hill roads. Immigration officials suspended most enforcement in the Northern California fire areas, authorities said Friday, and Gov. Jerry Brown announced that the White House had agreed to send direct aid to those affected by the disaster.

Adding to Santa Rosa residents' maelstrom of emotions was their shock that wildfire, which more commonly burns through ridges and valleys of oak brush, had swept into the neat suburban tracts miles away.

The once-placid Coffey Park neighborhood, where at least two people died, turned into a hellscape of ash and fallen timber, punctuated by the turquoise square of a swimming pool.

"We have always thought about earthquakes, and we are prepared for an earthquake," said Luis Hernandez, a 10-year Coffey Park resident whose house was destroyed in the early morning hours Monday. "But we never thought about a fire. This caught us very off guard."

Nearly everyone in Santa Rosa lost a home or knows someone who did — or worse. Thirty of one Santa Rosa synagogue's 460 families found their houses destroyed, and a former president of the synagogue died, the rabbi said.

At a downtown motel where evacuees had taken refuge, David Joslyn ran into a young woman in sweatpants carrying a cat.

"How're you doing?" he asked.

"My house burned down, so it's kind of sad," she said.


"Coffey Park?" he asked.

"Yeah," she said, with a pained look on her face.

Joslyn's own house on a ridge on Mark West Springs Road at the northern end of the city — "our extravagance" — is presumed gone, he said. Joslyn, a special-education teacher, and his wife, Sara, a psychologist, loved the private, remote feel of the house, with its 360-degree views of trees and its open living area, where their two sons did their homework and played while Joslyn cooked or did "dad stuff" in the office.

The deck — bigger than the Joslyns' entire former house — was full of memories of family barbecues. Every day, sometimes twice daily, the family walked their dogs to the nearby clearing at the top of a dirt road.

Authorities on Friday added several names to the list of those who died in the fire. Many of them were elderly — the average age was 79. Some died alone. But family members also died together.

In Mendocino County, Roy Howard Bowman, 87, and his wife, Irma Elsie Bowman, 88, were found dead in their Redwood Valley home, the Sheriff's Office said. The structure was decimated.

Kai Logan Shepherd, 14, was trying to escape the fire when he was "overtaken by flames" near his family's Redwood Valley home, authorities said.

The Redwood Valley and Potter fires in Mendocino County had burned 34,000 acres and were 10% contained as of Friday, according to Cal Fire. Eight people had died and about 8,000 people had been evacuated there.

Joslyn isn't sure if they will rebuild on their land, or when. "It's up to my wife," he said. "She was thinking maybe not [because] she can't deal with the emotion of it."

But Zack Browne, who lives in Santa Rosa with his wife and two cats, expects people will rebuild. Their house is fine, but his in-laws' place was destroyed.

"That's home to them," he said.

Agrawal and Nelson reported from Santa Rosa, Kohli and Holland from Los Angeles. Times staff writers Chris Megerian in Santa Rosa, Paige St. John in Napa County and Dakota Smith, Javier Panzar, Benjamin Oreskes and Kate Mather in Los Angeles contributed to this report.