Advertisement
California

The race to escape Redwood Valley: ‘Everyone out of the car! We need to run’

In his living room after midnight, as he waited for “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” Frank Belford sniffed smoke.

He stepped into his yard with his dog Sassy. Above the ridge to the east, it looked like the glow of a giant autumn moon rising, orange as a jack-o’-lantern.

But he knew full moons did not rise at midnight.

“Kathy, get out of bed.”

Advertisement

The escape from Redwood Valley began with no evacuation orders, no reverse-911 alerts, no warning whatsoever from authorities. Residents were left on their own to flee for their lives.

A mechanic trapped by fire on the ground climbed a tree until it passed. An elderly woman raced out in her underwear. A mother and her four children hiked through the brush of a steep mountain ravine to safety.

Most who survived had to thread a narrow road with trees ablaze on both sides. Burning debris rained down on them as they drove over fallen limbs in the smoke.

Eight people did not make it out of the valley alive.

Advertisement

Redwood Valley is one of the bucolic valleys dividing the vast mountains of Mendocino County. The braided West Fork of the Russian River wends through it from the north as the valley opens from a narrow canyon to a flat bottom-land of vineyards, pastures, modest new homes and old farmhouses.

Thick forest of oak, fir, madrone, redwood and maple cover the ridges to the east and west, with off-the-grid homesteads and marijuana plots scattered up old logging roads.

The Belfords lived on Fisher Lake Drive, a one-street subdivision of 18 houses built in the narrow north end of the valley in the 1970s.

On their woodsy cul-de-sac were teachers, firefighters, mechanics, shop owners, contractors, at least one pot grower and several retirees. They had swimming pools, ATVs and backyard work shops.

Tomki Road — one lane in each direction — was the only way out.

Video taken by resident Frank Belford on Fisher Lake Drive in Redwood Valley. The flames incinerated the neighborhood, killing 8 people.

On that Sunday night, Oct. 8, Kathy Belford called the community’s volunteer fire department and the closest Cal Fire station. No one answered. She called 911, and the dispatcher told her she was not aware of any alerts or evacuation orders in Redwood Valley.

The Redwood Valley Fire Department, including a volunteer who lived across the street, had been sent to a fire in neighboring Potter Valley that erupted an hour before.

Advertisement

Embers and spot fires leapfrogged the valley floor and up the west ridge, and at 1 a.m., the flame front was moving down the other side — toward the 1,730 residents of Redwood Valley.

Frank Belford told Kathy to wake up the neighbors while he drove to warn his elderly aunt up Tomki Road.

Kathy called Katrena Dursteler next door.

The two women, both schoolteachers, met in the street as a Cal Fire SUV drove up.

“Should we wake the neighbors up?” Dursteler recalls asking the officer.

He seemed uncertain. The fire was still distant.

“You might want to get prepared,” he said.

As he drove away, Dursteler, 45, went inside and woke up her husband, Steve, a 56-year-old crane operator, and then ran across the street to knock on the door of her elderly neighbor.

Advertisement

The wind picked up.

Kathy Belford, 53, walked to the next house to alert Redhawk Pallesen, a retired Cal Fire captain, and his family. He came out and looked at the orange light, unable to gauge the threat.

He and his 20-year-old daughter drove a half-mile south on Tomki to a lookout. He could see the fire was two miles away.

By then, the wind was turning gale-force. On Fisher Lake Drive, clothes flapped against skin as if the residents had jumped from a plane. Heavy tree limbs snapped.

They shouted through what sounded like a jet engine’s roar, with an eerie keening.

Minutes later, when Pallesen and his daughter pulled back into the driveway, the fire had jumped a good mile down the mountain.

“We’re leaving now,” he said.

::

Up the hill from him, Charlotte Scott had seen the fire and raced her Volvo down the three-mile dirt road from her house. The 41-year-old attorney had four children ranging in age from 3 to 14 in the car. She watched the fire coming down the east ridge toward the valley floor and needed to make it to Tomki Road before the flames did.

She swung into her neighbor Jan Hoyman’s driveway, half a mile from Tomki, and lay on the horn to wake her up. No movement. Her Subaru was parked. Maybe she’d left with her tenants.

Scott pulled out, rounded a bend and gasped. The pasture to the right was up in flames, and trees next to her were burning. She stopped in front of a line of fire on the ground. A burning tree had fallen across the dirt road.

Just beyond it, her escape route, Tomki, was ablaze.

She reversed to do a three-point-turn on the narrow road in the smoke. With no visibility, she misjudged. Her back wheels dropped into a ditch, and the car high-centered on the edge. The tires spun.

“Everyone out of the car!” she told the children in a panic.

“We need to run.”

::

When the power died, embers and flaming chunks of debris were hailing sideways across Fisher Lake Drive. Katrena and Steve Dursteler could not get near the north half of the street to alert those neighbors. They had seen some drive out.

Katrena got in the car with their three dogs, yelling at Steve to come.

He stood in the driveway, staring at the garage and the safe with his guns – some his dad had handed down to him. He thought of all the work he had done remodeling this house over 13 years. The rock hearth he built with stone from a friend’s property in the Sierra. The picket he fence he had just put up. The wrought iron garden ornaments he welded.

He knew he would not see them again.

He jumped in his Dodge pickup and followed his wife and Kathy Belford and two other neighbors out of the cul-de-sac.

On Tomki, he watched tendrils of fire swirl around the slipstream of the caravan.

“Go, baby, go,” Steve said to himself, to his wife in the car ahead of him. “Go, go, go.”

::

Pallesen and Frank Belford stayed behind, hopeful they could douse spot fires before they ignited their homes.

As the trees lit up around him, Pallesen, 52, escaped the intense the heat by driving around in his truck to find cool spots.

Embers pelted Belford relentlessly, and he kept hosing down his Levi jacket so it wouldn’t catch on fire.

Houses across the street erupted. Propane tanks exploded, tires blew.

At times, Belford, a 58-year-old mechanic, thought he was hallucinating. He watched aerosol cans launch like errant missiles. Bullets popped. Fire tornadoes screeched across the street.

He lost the water in his front hose when the PVC pipe supplying it melted. The water pressure in the back hose turned to a trickle, and he had to whip the nozzle, flinging water under his eaves.

Pallesen watched his workshop ignite and fall. Around 2 a.m., he turned to see a small, white-haired woman standing behind him.

“How are you alive?” he thought.

She had parked her cloth-top Buick Regal behind his truck.

Cheryl Locatelli, 72, was out of options. Her husband, Ron, had left to fight the fire in Potter Valley.

When her neighbor Steve Dursteler knocked on her door more than an hour before, Locatelli got dressed and grabbed her dog to leave. But the power went out and she couldn’t open the garage door. She tried to call Ron. No answer. She found a flashlight and then remembered the pull cord that released the garage door. When she got on Tomki, the fire was terrifying and she turned back.

Pallesen dropped the hose, deciding he needed to get Locatelli to safety.

“Follow me closely,” he said. “Don’t stop.”

A quarter-mile down the road in his truck, he spotted what looked like a power line arcing. As he approached, he realized it was a flashlight.

Two people in jeans were standing in the road. Terry Blair, 64, wore a bathrobe over his; his wife Carol, 61, a nightgown. They had woken to their house and cars on fire. She called 911 to say they were trapped. She was so scared she couldn’t remember her address. The dispatcher could not help. They had no choice but to run.

When they saw headlights coming maybe 10 minutes later, Terry thought it was a mirage. They had expected to die.

Pallesen stopped. Terry opened the passenger door and lifted Carol in.

::

Scott was pulling her 3-year-old daughter out of her stuck Volvo when her neighbor Jan Hoyman came racing toward her in the Subaru.

Scott pushed everyone into Hoyman’s car, and they headed back up the mountain, trying to outrun the wildfire.

They drove to the top of the mountain and bushwhacked through a ravine — following deer trails, crawling through manzanita — to an evacuated house, where they found an ATV with the keys in it. They hooked it to a trailer, loaded the children in and motored off.

::

Frank Belford was now alone on Fisher Lake Drive. He watched all of his neighbors’ homes collapse, including Pallesen’s. He kept flinging water at his eaves, but soon he saw smoke streaming from the roof vents. The attic was burning.

He took a brief video, panning the glowing ruins of the neighborhood.

His home of 23 years collapsed. He had just six more payments on the mortgage.

The pine needles in his front yard ignited. He doused himself with the hose and climbed a few feet up a fir tree to keep from getting burned.

He had maneuvered his truck to keep it from the fire, but he didn’t think it was possible to drive out.

When he climbed down, he saw two firetrucks go north on Tomki. He ran out to the road with a strobe light and shined it at them, he said, but they didn’t stop. A couple of minutes later, heading south, they passed him again.

But if they could escape, he figured, he could, too. He got in his truck and made it to his cousin’s at the south end of the valley around 3 a.m., and then met his wife at an evacuation center 20 miles north. He thought Kathy had taken Sassy, his beloved Jack Russell terrier who went with him everywhere. But she hadn’t.

He broke down; Sassy died in the fire.

::

The survivors of Redwood Valley praised their neighbors’ small, life-saving acts, even inadvertent ones: The Belfords spotting the fire and rousing others. The Durstelers going door-to-door. Pallesen staying behind, rescuing three people. Hoyman appearing at the critical moment when all seemed lost for Scott and her children.

But the loss around them is staggering. Eight people perished within three miles. About 500 homes burned. All 18 houses on Fisher Lake Drive were destroyed.

When the residents returned to the street last week to dig through the rubble, their minds couldn’t help but wander to the two closest victims, just two lots north of the Belfords, the couple at 4141 Fisher Lake Drive, who were always so cheerful — and so thankful for help cutting trees and fixing fences. Roy and Irma Bowman, 87 and 88, never got a warning, and never got out.

joe.mozingo@latimes.com

@joemozingo

How Harvey Weinstein used his fashion business as a pipeline to models

A 13.5-mile tunnel will make or break California’s bullet train

Stephen K. Bannon brings his ‘war’ against the GOP establishment to California


Advertisement