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Santa Rosa residents flee, hoping their homes survive as fire bears down

During the Shady fire, a firefighter is silhouetted against a wall of flames.
Firefighters battle the Shady fire Monday as it makes its way toward homes along Mountain Hawk Drive in Santa Rosa, Calif.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Monday morning brought a too-familiar sight in Sonoma County as the morning sun turned to a smoke-shrouded red disk in the summer sky.

Fire tore into the edge of Santa Rosa on Sunday night, bringing destruction and memories of the 2017 Tubbs fire, which destroyed suburban neighborhoods and changed the way people here think about wildfires.

Mat Tamba stood in front of his house in Spring Lake, just a few miles from the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, where an evacuation center was hosted in previous fires. But the fairgrounds are now deemed too close to the current flames to be safe for evacuees. The Shady fire exploded Sunday night and Monday morning, burning into Santa Rosa and surrounding areas. An unknown number of homes have been lost.

This neighborhood of cul-de-sacs and mature oaks is nestled against the hills of Trione-Annadel State Park. Fire is coming up the back side of the park’s 5,000 acres, and Spring Lake is under a mandatory evacuation order. Tamba was watching a fresh plume of smoke that had just begun rising over the ridge. It hadn’t been there minutes ago and perhaps indicated a new area of actively burning fire.

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“That’s the new something I just saw,” he said, worried. His 9-year-old son, Tyler, daughter Matison, 4, and wife Noelle had evacuated to his in-laws’ house the previous night, but he returned Monday morning to gather more things — toiletries, a Minnie Mouse stuffed doll.

Current conditions have spurred Tamba, like many locals, to relive the trauma of the Tubbs fire. Tamba’s in-laws lost their home then, in a neighborhood not far away, and Sunday night, when propane tanks began to pop nearby, he knew the situation was serious.

“That’s when it becomes eerie,” he said. “That’s the sign it’s getting to the houses.”

Around the corner from Tamba, Marilyn Heller had already taken the advice of the Santa Rosa Fire Department and put the propane tanks from her grill on the sidewalk in front of her driveway. During the Tubbs fire, firefighters never knew when a tank was going to blow, she said. This time, officials are asking residents to put them out front to curtail those dangerous surprises. Tanks lined the sidewalks in Spring Lake.

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Like Tamba, Heller, 72, was packing up her car to get out. She paused to blow a thickening layer of acidic ash off the shiny black hood of her Porsche Cayenne. She and her husband, Robert, have lived in their ranch-style house since 1974, when they bought it for $39,000. Now, everything sentimental, hand-me-downs from her grandmother and aunt, was packed in 40 boxes and put in the car; they were headed to the coast.

Sunday night, she and her husband had discussed staying until they saw flames, she said as she kicked at burned leaves and embers in the gutter. Her son, a former Marine, had purchased special heat-resistant straws for them in case, she said, they needed to jump in the pool to survive. But she didn’t “want to be in the way of the Fire Department.”

Not far away, Ben Illia, 30, was hosing down the yard and had a sprinkler going on the grass at the house where he grew up. Illia said he didn’t intend to leave until he saw flames. He owns a water truck, originally purchased to fill pools but which in recent years has seen more action at fires.

“I don’t think it will reach this far,” he said of the current fire, noting that the wind had given way to a heavy stillness, broken only by the hum of his generator. He purchased the generator last year after planned electricity cutoffs left him in the dark. Despite the risks, Illia says this is a neighborhood he loves.

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“It’s a good place,” he said, “besides the power outages and the fires.”


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