Nicholas Carrera, 3683 Hemlock St.
The idea was to buy a house, but until the market cooled off, Hemlock Street seemed like the right place for Nicholas Carrera and his mother, Jackie, to be.
Nicholas, 23, had just moved back in with his mom after finishing college in Los Angeles.
He liked living on Hemlock Street. Neighbors were friendly and his mom had only a five-minute commute. He worked the late-night freight shift at the nearby Home Depot. One night he met a fellow at work named Ryan Crowne. It turned out he also lived on Hemlock, right next door.
On Sunday, Nicholas had the night off. He was in his room watching YouTube videos.
When his computer suddenly shut down, he got up and saw smoke in the house.
He and his sister’s boyfriend decided to drive around the neighborhood. They saw that the wildfire that had begun 10 miles away had nearly reached the 101 Freeway, just blocks from their home.
They raced back to Hemlock Street. Nicholas went next door to alert Ryan.
Then he tried to rush his mother, who was packing up some things.
“She was very calm, kind of in disbelief,” he said.
His sister, who was visiting from college, rounded up her animals: two cats, Buddy and Socks, and a bunny named Oliver.
Now the house on Hemlock Street is gone. The family of three is divided, each staying in a different home until they sort out the renters insurance.
“I don’t think anyone ever thought anything like this could happen in Santa Rosa,” Nicholas said.
Carol Collins-Swasey (deceased), 3669 Hemlock St.
Carol Collins-Swasey, 76, had lived in Santa Rosa for 30 years.
She was a real estate agent by trade. After she retired, she was an active Red Cross volunteer.
Her husband, Jim, was out of town the night of the fire. When he couldn’t reach Carol, he called local authorities, Carol’s stepdaughter Roxanne wrote in an email.
Firefighters found Carol’s remains in the house, Roxanne wrote.
“As you can imagine, this is a very stressful time in our family's lives,” she wrote. “We are devastated at the loss of Carol.”
Carol and Jim had been married for 27 years. She “was quick-witted with a great sense of humor and an animal lover,” Roxanne wrote.
“She was a positive influence on a lot of people's lives in helping them buy homes and felt a lot of gratitude in being able to do so.”
Carol loved to crochet afghans for her friends and family, Roxanne wrote. She was “very grandmotherly in that way. She also had the best chocolate chip cookie recipe I've ever tasted, and enjoyed surprising us with them when my siblings and I were kids. ”
Carol is survived by her husband, Jim, Roxanne, three other stepchildren, nine grandchildren and three brothers.
— Benjamin Oreskes
Sanaz and Stefan Kiesbye, 3662 Hemlock St.
For the record: An earlier version of this post said the couple lived at 3622 Hemlock Street. They lived at 3662.
Sanaz Kiesbye and her husband, Stefan, were awakened about 1:30 a.m. by one of their dogs, whining and pawing at their bedroom door. They went outside, where they smelled smoke and saw embers falling from the sky.
“It kept getting smokier and smokier to the point you couldn’t see across the street,” said Sanaz, 43.
Many of the homes on Hemlock were dark, and it didn’t appear that her neighbors were awake, she said.
As the smoke thickened, a police car drove by, with an officer on a megaphone calling out with urgency: “You have to evacuate! You have to get out now!”
But the volume wasn’t very loud. Sanaz wondered how many people heard.
She had been planning to go to San Diego for work the next morning, so she already had a packed bag. She threw it in their car and got their two dogs in. Her husband didn’t pack a bag, she said. They thought they’d return the next day.
“We didn’t imagine that we wouldn’t be able to go back,” she said.
The couple had moved to Santa Rosa from New Mexico a year and a half earlier, so that Stefan could take a position at Sonoma State University. They’d bought the 1,000-square-foot ranch-style house on Hemlock, and in recent months, they’d painted many of the rooms, picking a cheery yellow for the kitchen and a dark blue for a bathroom.
Delighted with the California climate, they had planted lemon and lime trees in the frontyard and added rock landscaping.
By the time they drove out of their neighborhood early Monday morning, it was clear that most of their neighbors knew they had to leave. It took 45 minutes to get out, Sanaz said, because all of the cars caused a backup.
At that moment, she said, “it felt real.”
The couple returned to the neighborhood briefly the next afternoon. Their home was gone, although a lone white lawn chair in the backyard had somehow survived.
Homes and fences had once delineated the neighborhood. Now it was a ghostly, open expanse.
“It was strangely beautiful,” Sanaz said. “Like a graveyard. Eerie.”
Before the fire, it had been beautiful in a very different way.
“It was like everyone planned it together and said, ’Let’s make beautiful frontyards,’” Sanaz said.
— Dakota Smith
John and Jennifer Hendrickson, 3650 Hemlock St.
John Hendrickson, 49, and his wife, Jennifer, woke up around 2:45 a.m. Their daughter was knocking on their bedroom door. Within 15 minutes, the family was heading out, carrying a cat in a cardboard box and a few personal items in a laundry basket.
“We escaped with our animals and the clothes on our back,” John said.
The family took all three cars. John drove one. His wife and his teenage daughter drove the others. The move at least saved something from the fire.
“It may have been a dumb idea, but we have all our cars,” John said.
As he drove out, John saw a roof two houses down from his on fire.
“It was surreal. I was numb the whole time,” he said of the escape. “My wife was terrified. She was shaking.”
The next day, a neighbor sent them a photo of the spot where their house had once been. John’s gym equipment, once in the garage, stood alone in the smoky ruins.
John said the family plans to rebuild.
— Dakota Smith
Luis and Elsa Hernandez, 3644 Hemlock Ct.
Luis Hernandez woke up to heavy smoke and the rattle of the wind whipping the branches of trees outside his window. It was 1:39 a.m., and glowing embers were starting to land on Hemlock Court.
When he stepped outside, he saw flames and smoke on the north side of Santa Rosa. In all directions, he heard pops and explosions.
He and his wife, Elsa, put their two sons in her SUV.
"The only thing we could grab were our passports and Social Security cards," said Luis, 35.
Then Luis ran over to the house of his neighbor Ed Kuhn and knocked on the door. He waited a beat, but there was no answer. So he jumped in his truck to flee, hitting bumper-to-bumper traffic on Coffey Lane.
He pulled out his phone and tried again to reach his neighbor — someone he chatted with occasionally but didn’t know well.
The neighborhood was friendly and quiet enough that kids could play in the street, but folks mostly kept to themselves, Hernandez said.
He reached Kuhn, rousing him from sleep.
"I told him there was a fire and everyone is leaving," Luis said.
Luis is a research and development technician. He and his wife bought the house 10 years ago.
"We have always thought about earthquakes, and we are prepared for an earthquake. All the time it was in our mind," Luis said. "But we never thought about a fire. That was never in our minds. This caught us very off guard. It was the middle of the night. Everyone was asleep."
Fires, Luis thought, happened in other sorts of places.
"There have always been fires up in the mountains and in the valleys but usually they would never reach the cities," he said.
He and his family spent the next day with relatives in Petaluma. But the air was so bad, they drove farther south, to an uncle's house in Oakland.
Luis and Elsa plan to rebuild. They bought the house when they were dating. It’s the only home their young boys, 1 and 3, know.
"The house was very important to us," Luis said.
Patrick and Kristie Coleman, 3654 Hemlock St.
Patrick Coleman and his wife, Kristie, have lived on Hemlock for about nine years, almost as long as they’ve been married.
They knew they would have to leave their home about 12:45 a.m., as the winds picked up, the smoke thickened and the fire crept closer.
“We had cinders the size of softballs crashing off the trucks and houses,” Patrick said. “Huge cinders were bouncing off the streets when I looked out the window. It was nuts. It was like a war zone. It was hot. The wind was crazy. Trash cans were full, but the wind picked them up and threw them 20 feet.”
Patrick told Kristie, 37, to get dressed, grab their two wiener dogs and get out.
Patrick, 38, recently started a plumbing company. He recognized the sound of people’s gas cans blowing up as they made their escape.
The drive out was slow. People were panicking. It took an hour to drive a mile.
Before they left, Patrick thought to wear old work boots and jeans. That way his good clothes wouldn’t get dirty if he stopped to help people.
He thought the rest of his belongings would be waiting at home for him when he returned.
He and Kristie lost everything.
He had $30,000 of construction equipment, he said. His work truck is now a heaping mess in the driveway. His signed Roger Maris, Hank Aaron and Mickey Mantle baseball cards all went up in flames.
Patrick took solace in the fact that his wife still had her wedding ring and that they had digital backups of their wedding photos on a laptop.
Then it dawned on him that the laptop was no more.
“We have them somewhere on a hard drive,” he said, before realizing that the hard drive, too, was “toast.”
That meant all his business records are gone too.
He’s trying to figure out how to restart his business and sort out who owes him money.
But he and Kristie are committed to rebuilding, he said, and moving back into the neighborhood.
— Benjamin Oreskes
Julie and James Pilacelli, 3693 Hemlock St.
The black and orange pumpkins that Julie Pilacelli puts out each Halloween made it out of the garage this year, but they melted in their bins.
The fire that blasted through Hemlock Street late Sunday night razed her home of 21 years.
“We are feeling lost, destroyed, homeless,” Julie, 48, said.
When a sound woke her up at 1 a.m., she slipped on her robe and went outside.
As she stood in the middle of her street, she smelled smoke and felt a breeze and a sinking feeling.
“Something told me,” she said. “Death. Go. Leave now.”
She and her husband, James, had 15 minutes to escape their house. James tried to stop and think about what they should pack.
But Julie told him, “Honey, I love you. Shut up. Get your keys. We gotta go.”
As they tried to drive away from Hemlock Street, fireballs hit their windshield. Blockades turned them back four times. The smoke was so thick and dark, Julie said all she could do was follow the headlights in front of her.
It’s too soon to know just how much was lost in the fire.
Their children, now grown, were devastated to lose their childhood home, and the neighborhood where they used to ride bikes to school and play with classmates on the sidewalk, Julie said.
When one of the kids returned with friends after the blaze, all they found were Julie's flip-flops next to the front door.
“They were charred cement and one was broken in half,” Julie said.
Julie and James went to stay with a relative.
They were so shaken and dazed, they could hardly eat or sleep.
For several days, Julie lost track of the medications she’s supposed to take.
“I just couldn’t make things work,” Julie said. “My head was in a cloud.”
Kevin Johnson, 3667 Hemlock St.
Kevin Johnson recently returned from visiting family in Illinois.
He had brought along videos of his home to show off all the progress he’d been making remodeling.
“The solar panels were just installed,” Kevin said. The night of the fire, “I was just putting in the baseboards.”
“That part pretty much sucks,” the 51-year-old said of the project he took on by himself. “I’m never getting back the sweat I put into this.”
The house he had lived in since 2011 was gray with white trim — two bedrooms, one bath, on a spacious corner lot.
Kevin had just finished painting the place. The frontyard was well manicured.
Kevin and his girlfriend fell asleep about 10 p.m. Sunday.
“We smelled smoke,” he said, “but we figured we’d be all right.”
Then around 1:30 a.m., his girlfriend woke up, smelling more smoke.
“She came back to bed, and like two minutes later there was an explosion,” Kevin said.
That’s when they knew it was time to go.
He grabbed the keys to his truck. An ember floated over and landed in a bush.
“It didn’t just catch fire, it exploded, he said.
They joined the exodus of cars, and by the time they edged out the neighborhood, they saw houses on fire.
When Kevin returned days later, everything he owned was gone. His 2009 Kawasaki Ninja 650R motorcycle, which had been “mint,” he said, was now a charred mess.
He said he still plans to rebuild and return.
— Benjamin Oreskes
Veronica and Allan Darrimon, 3675 Hemlock St.
Veronica Darrimon and her husband, Allan, went to bed around midnight after checking for fire updates online. The fires didn't look close.
It wasn't until after 2 a.m. that a neighbor, Jack Reisner, came knocking. Another neighbor called.
Allan tried to water their lawn, thinking it could save the house. But then he saw the towering flames. There would be no saving anything in the path of the Tubbs fire.
"The embers were like little bonfires popping up," Veronica said.
When the fire reached Hemlock Street, the couple fled with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
"We didn't really realize that we were evacuating and evacuating for good," Veronica said.
A wildfire on her street was beyond her imagining, especially one with no advance warning.
"It was unfathomable that this could even happen. We didn't have any checks or robocalls. There were no sirens," she said. "It was the goodness of our neighbors that saved us."
The couple spent the night at their church, but then they had to evacuate again to another church.
Now they are slowly getting in contact with their neighbors and looking toward the future. Before the fire, neighbors would casually chat.
"Most of us don't have children or don't have children anymore," Veronica said. "A lot of us were remodeling our houses. We had all been doing a lot of upgrades and exchanging ideas."
Veronica and Allan had just redone their yard and their bathroom.
Now the talk between neighbors is about how to rebuild the neighborhood and where they will live for the months or, more likely, years it will take to rebuild.
Veronica, 59, teaches in a special education program in nearby Guerneville and needs to stay in the area. Her sister also lost her home in Coffey Park.
Still, "we know we are gonna get through this," she said. "We feel confident about that."
Claire Butler, 3677 Hemlock St.
Claire Butler, 92, awoke very early Monday morning to the sound of her smoke detector going off.
"I wake up and smell smoke," she said. "I thought the house was burning or something."
She opened her front door and saw the fire down the block.
"All these little red bits floating by me," she said. "And I thought, I better get out of here. So I did. With my purse and my little PJs."
In her Ford Focus, she backed out onto Hemlock Street. She thought about getting out of her car to warn her neighbors Veronica and Allan Darrimon, but cars were already lined up behind her and she decided to leave.
Soon, she hit standstill traffic.
"It seemed like I was waiting a long time," Claire said.
At the corner, a police officer opened the door of her car and asked if she could take two people whose vehicle had broken down.
"I thought it was a funny question," she said. "Of course! They climbed in with their two dogs.”
Claire drove three miles to her daughter’s house, on the other side of Santa Rosa.
Claire is a mother of four, with two grandchildren.
She had lived in her house on Hemlock for 25 years — in recent years, by herself.
Now that the house is gone, Claire said, she is not thinking of rebuilding.
"I'm going to go to a place that takes in a lot of people," she said.
And her property?
"I'll sell it, I guess.”
Linda Garcia, 3679 Hemlock St.
When the flames jumped the 101 Freeway, Linda Garcia still thought she would be safe. She called her sister, who lives nearby, and told her to come over so they could wait out the fire together.
But a few minutes after her sister arrived, Linda spotted out a back window a tree in flames behind the house. Evacuation orders scrolled down her TV screen. She grabbed her purse, two photos of her grandchildren and a small safe with her birth certificate and Social Security card. Then she and her sister ran for her car.
They peeled out of the driveway into standstill traffic. Stuck for more than half an hour, they saw walls of flames on both sides of the street and red embers swirling through the air.
“I didn’t know whether to stay in the car or run,” said Linda, 64. “We were just laying on our horns and hoping and praying we got out in time.”
The next day, she returned home to find her house and much of her neighborhood in ashes. When she picked through the wreckage of what had been her home, she found nothing worth salvaging.
She looked around the neighborhood and saw untouched homes, lawns and cars. The strangely selective nature of the fire’s destruction was hard to comprehend.
“All these cars hollowed out, this whole neighborhood just flattened,” Linda said. “And then, all of a sudden, you’ll see someone’s home standing. And it’s just like, why was this spared?”
Linda works for a solar energy lending company. She grew up in Santa Rosa and had lived in her house on Hemlock Street for nearly 40 years. She moved there, she said, because it was a safe and quiet neighborhood where neighbors waved to each other and stopped to chat in the streets. She wanted her children to grow up in Santa Rosa as she had. She hosted Thanksgivings and Christmases, got friendly with her neighbors and raised three sons and a daughter in the house. She’d never thought about wildfires as a potential risk.
The basketball hoop her sons had grown up with was still in the frontyard, one of the only things left standing on her property.
Linda is grateful to have escaped with her life and a few important documents. But she can’t help agonizing over what she had to leave behind.
Her mother died recently and left Linda with her possessions, including old photographs of grandparents she had never met. Just a few days before the fire, Linda and her sister had resolved to sort through it all.
She thought of a box in her closet that contained the ashes of her rescue dog, Stormy, who kept her company and made the house feel safe after all her sons left for college.
“She was part German shepherd and part Rottweiler. She passed away 10 years ago — though talking about her now, it doesn’t seem that long,” Linda said.
Like many of her neighbors, Linda wants to rebuild, but she doesn’t know if she’ll have the time or energy. She has homeowner’s insurance, she said, but hasn’t yet learned how much money she will get.
Right now she’s staying with her daughter, who also lives in Santa Rosa.
“From here, I don’t know where I go,” Linda said. “Every day, all I can think of is what I’m going to do.”
— Frank Shyong
Jack and Janet Reisner, 3691 Hemlock St.
Jack and Janet Reisner used to love talking about their house on Hemlock.
The dining room floor was set in a herringbone pattern, using oak that Jack salvaged from a trash container. The kids, when they were still at home, had helped blow insulation into the walls. And the closets in the master bedroom were lined with cedar.
Over two decades, the family had almost fully renovated what had once been one of the most run-down houses on the block.
“This was our piazza,” Jack said. “The unveiling of a life’s work.”
The wildfire burned it all to the ground.
“When you stand there and look at the devastation, there are no words,” Jack said.
Sunday had been a typical day. The Northern California fires seemed miles away.
But when Jack and Janet woke up around 1 a.m., their home was full of smoke.
Jack went outside and found sparks whizzing by overhead. Huge chunks of flaming wood were landing in his backyard.
“It seemed like a giant was blowing them out of a blower,” he said.
The couple grabbed a suitcase, threw some clothes in it and ran out the door.
They left behind Janet’s wedding ring. Her Christmas ornament collection. The ugly green tie with the glued-on gorilla that her daughter gave her husband on a long-ago Father’s Day, the one he loved so much he said he wanted to be buried in it.
“There was no time,” Janet said.
As they pushed through the gridlock to escape in Janet’s car, they saw tree branches and bushes start to blaze.
They returned later to find a wasteland of melted, twisted rubble. Even the granite counters in their kitchen had turned to ash. Their big freezer in the garage now was the size of a microwave. Their six-person hot tub, melted, looked like a deformed trash can.
“This was our neighborhood and the neighborhood across the street and to the south and to the north,” Jack said. “Every single street, gone.”
Jimmy and Jennifer Warren, 3696 Hemlock St.
The houses on Hemlock Street were tract homes, all built in the 1970s.
Over the years, each owner had tweaked and renovated. They planted Japanese maples in their gardens, put bay windows in their living rooms, renovated their kitchens and added granite counters.
“We put a lot in our homes and were proud of our community,” said Jimmy Warren, 39.
The night of the fire, Jimmy and his wife, Jennifer, escaped with little more than their dogs.
Some neighbors tried to take on the blaze with hoses, determined to save their investments. Those efforts seemed futile as the water seemed to evaporate with the heat.
In the days since the fire, the Warrens, like many others, have struggled to understand what went wrong.
There were no fire trucks. No evacuation notices. No notices of any kind.
As Jimmy escaped, he spotted one lone police car racing down the street. The officer shouted through a megaphone, telling people to leave, but his siren was off.
Jimmy heard about Carol Collins-Swasey, the neighbor who didn’t make it.
Many more could have died if it weren’t for their intuition, he said.
“We were left high and dry,” Jimmy said. “Nobody was there to help and everyone was just trying to save their own lives.”
The Warrens have lived on Hemlock for 16 years. Jimmy owns an auto body shop. The couple is hopeful, but full of questions about the future.
Will insurance companies come through? Will the neighbors return? Will the city be equipped to handle the flood of building requests?
“This was our sanctuary,” Jimmy said. “I just want it to go back to the way it was.”
Stacey and Dan Hageman, 3699 Hemlock St.
Stacey Hageman, 49, and her husband, Dan, woke up after midnight Sunday to the acrid scent of smoke. An ominous orange glow lit the sky.
Dan rushed outside in a T-shirt and underwear and began frantically dousing the house and property with a garden hose.
The wind was whipping so fast that it threatened to mist the water as soon as it came out of the hose. The gusts were sending embers flying, Stacey said, like a sky full of “orange popcorn.”
The Hagemans packed their cat and two dogs into the car. They pulled out of their driveway at 2 a.m., only to find themselves in standstill traffic, noisy with people honking their horns.
It took them an hour to drive a mile to Stacey’s parents’ house, and then they had to evacuate again, to a friend’s house farther away. The power was out there, so they waited in the dark for dawn, wondering if they’d have a home to return to.
In the morning, a friend who had surveyed the damage on his bike called to tell them what he saw.
“He was weeping,” Stacey said. “He told us, ‘Your house is there, but the whole neighborhood’s gone.’”
Stacey and Dan went back to their home later that day. Nine houses on their street had survived, she said. She thinks about 25 homes remain in the whole subdivision.
From her front window, she used to look on so many homes. Now she sees only one.
Stacey works in the office of a nearby hospital’s emergency room. Dan works in construction. They moved to the neighborhood in 2010. They both grew up in Santa Rosa and wanted to start their life together in their hometown. It’s a place, Stacey said, where trick-or-treaters wander safely through the streets on Halloween and all the neighbors wave back when you wave at them.
The threat of wildfire was something they’d never thought about.
After the fire, an eerie quiet blanketed the neighborhood, broken only by the buzz of helicopter blades. Strangers drove through to look at the wreckage and take photos until police locked down every entrance to keep the curious out.
The small group of residents who came back to homes still standing had cold water but no power.
Stacey watched her neighbors return to pick over the remains of their homes, torn between guilt at her own good fortune and thankfulness that her home survived. When television crews descended on the neighborhood, Hageman asked them not to film her house.
“We see husbands and wives crying, picking through their houses just to see if they can find anything. They ask us, ‘Is your place gone too?’ It’s very hard to answer,” she said.
The one bright spot, she said, has been watching the community pull together. She’s seen people weeping on the shoulders of neighbors they had never even met before. Everyone asks each other how they can help.Stacey offers her bathroom to anyone who needs one. Her husband has gone around the neighborhood helping to shut off gas valves. She’s been desperate to leave the subdivision so that she can volunteer at the shelters in the area. But she’s afraid that if she does, police won’t let her back in.
“There’s so many things I could be helping with right now,” Stacey said. “There are so many bigger needs in the world.”
Dogs and cats dart around the neighborhood, looking for their owners. Though the couple already has two Jack Russell terriers, Jamie and Tucker, and Parker the cat, Stacey has added a new animal to the household: a small kitten she named Cammie.
“It was a great family neighborhood,” she said. “And it will be again.”
Reporting by Esmeralda Bermudez, Javier Panzar, Benjamin Oreskes, Dakota Smith and Frank Shyong
Page design and graphics by Jon Schleuss
Additional graphics by Len De Groot
Map sources: Sonoma County GIS, OpenSteetMap, Mapzen