Santa Rosa under siege again: It feels like being on the Titanic twice, one resident says

Near Healdsburg, Calif., the Soda Rock winery along State Highway 128 is consumed by the Kincade fire early Sunday.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

In darkness Sunday morning, Karen Kristensen was packing two cars for her 88-year-old mother, Beverly, and herself.

Their Coffey Park neighborhood was ordered evacuated as the Kincade fire grew, and once again they were forced to outrun the flames.

The 2017 fires burned into Santa Rosa, consuming thousands of homes in Fountaingate, Coffey Park and other communities. Dozens who could not outrun the flames died.


Those who survived 2017 felt they were reliving it again Sunday as the Kincade fire to the north prompted evacuations for a big swath of Santa Rosa as well as other Sonoma County cities.

Homes here are still under construction or brand-new. Kristensen just moved back in August. Last time, they escaped with just some laundry and a few pictures.

“I wore shorts for two weeks,” she said. “Everything was dust. There was nothing left.”

Though they were leaving, Kristensen said the night felt different from the Tubbs fire. Then, large embers were blowing through her neighborhood and and it was hot. Sunday morning temperatures hovered in the 60s and they had more time to prepare with multiple warnings.

“This stupid thing has been ringing all night,” she said, holding up her cellphone. “Which is good. I have no problem with it.”

Rick Stewart, 52, said he, too, couldn’t sleep as the evacuation alerts kept pinging on his phone. The Navajo artist packed decades’ worth of artwork into his backpack and left. When one evacuation shelter was filled, he walked for nearly two hours against wind and dust to the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Auditorium, the glow of the Kincade fire in the distance.

“You could see how it would put a fright in people,” he said.

Stewart’s friend Patricia, 69, received a phone alert of the mandatory evacuation Sunday morning.


“The wind was just like ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ It was almost as big as a tornado,” she said. Without a car, she dialed 911 for evacuation transportation for her and her cat. Patricia said that although the center was full by the time she arrived, the two were allowed to stay.

Kayla and Steve Williams still had items packed from the fire two years ago. When the predawn evacuation order came down, they were ready — but their two young sons were terrified.

Their 9-year-old is having panic attacks, Kayla Williams said at the veterans auditorium shelter.

“He’s scared we are going to die in a fire,” she said.

Her 4-year-old boy asked if they’re going to live in a car permanently. Both children have been crying, begging to return home.

“I don’t know what to tell them,” she said. “It’s hard when us as adults are panicking and are trying to stay calm for them.”

Steve Williams described the firefighters’ efforts as a battle “worse than war. This is a fight against Mother Nature.”

In a house on the edge of Coffey Park, which burned to the ground in the 2017 Tubbs fire, Daniel Barcenas, his two brothers and his 80-year-old grandmother were still home before dawn on Sunday, despite an evacuation order that came right up to their street but stopped short of their front door.


Barcenas lost two homes in the last fire. He lived in Coffey Park in a rental with his grandma and had just purchased a nearby home. “The day before the fire we had just finished painting,” he said of the house he never got to move into.

Now it is just a vacant lot, and he has purchased this third home that once again faces danger of destruction. The night of the Tubbs fire, the smoke was so bad that he could not see in front of him and traffic was at a standstill in the subdivision.

The only light was from explosions, he said. At one point, he feared he would have to get out of the car and carry his grandmother to safety. He was staying behind now because his brother, Eduardo Barcenas, refused to leave.

“He’s stubborn,“ Daniel Barcenas said.

Eduardo Barcenas had spent the day watering down the lawn, but Daniel Barcenas was not convinced they were safe.

The brothers sat on the back porch as winds whipped through the area in the dark and saw power lines crashing together and sparking just past their backyard, they said.

“It looked like lightning,” said the third brother, Jose Barcenas.

Daniel Barcenas takes this seriously after his last experience. “It’s like what it must have been like to survive the Titanic and have to go through it all again,“ he said.