Most of us in the Bay Area were still unaware that wildfires were burning in Napa County Sunday night when Charles Rippey, age 100, and Sara Rippey, age 98, died together when their caretaker couldn’t get them out of their blazing, collapsing home. The couple were among the first victims when the Atlas fire still covered a mere 200 acres on Atlas Peak. (At press time Wednesday, that fire is now larger than 42,000 acres and three percent contained, according to Cal Fire.) The couple had been married an astonishing 75 years, had been sweethearts since grade school, and were living out the winter of their years at the Silverado Residential Community. While the official death toll is now up to 17 victims in the collective NorCal wildfires, the Rippeys stand out for their century-spanning story and the inspiration of a love that lasted longer than most of us will walk this earth.
The only part of the Rippeys' home that survived the blaze was the mailbox, according to CBS 5. The station got a really gripping longform interview with their son Mike Rippey, seen below as he surveyed the rubble of what just days before had been his parents’ home.
Sara and Charles Rippey met in elementary school in Hartford, Wisconsin in the late 1920s, according to the New York Times. “They’ve basically been together ever since,” son Mike said.
The two were married on March 20, 1942, shortly after both graduated from the University of Wisconsin. Charles was quickly shipped to World War II and served in North Africa, France, and Italy, while Sara worked stateside in a factory in a ‘Rosie the Riveter’ capacity. After the war, Charles had a long career with Firestone and other manufacturing companies, and the two retired to Napa in the early 1980s after having raised five children.
They celebrated their 75th anniversary this year, and Charles celebrated his 100th birthday in July.
On the fateful night of October 8, a caretaker had just prepared them dinner and was still on the premises after the Rippeys went to sleep. The Atlas fire ignited shortly afterward.
“This house was one of the first houses that was hit,” Mark Rippey told CBS 5. “The fire came out of those hills and it was coming 30-40-50 miles an hour and it was like a rainstorm except it was fire. It was blowing hot debris through the air.”
“There was no responders here yet,” Rippey said. “Later on down the road, a lot of the responders were going door to door, pulling people out of the houses. But nobody was able to get here. My mother and father being 100 and 98 were not able to move fast enough to get out.”
The caretaker attempted to save the couple until the blazing home’s roof caved in. “She went down to get my father and all the windows started to explode and (there was) smoke and heat and all that everywhere,” Mark told NBC Bay Area. “She just couldn’t find them.”
Charles’ body was found outside Sara’s room, with his walker, as apparently he was attempting to save her too.
The surviving family take comfort that their parents passed together. “We knew there's no way they would ever be happy, whoever was the last one,” Mark Rippey said. “So they went together, and that's the way it worked.”
The tragic subtext here is that fires like these disproportionately claim the lives of the elderly. But rarely do the victims leave behind so much legacy, and rarely do their stories capture our imagination the way Sara and Charles Rippey’s do.
The Rippeys are survived by their five children, 12 grandchildren, and nine great-grandchildren, according to the Napa Valley Register.