Fire like what we're seeing in the Bay Area and beyond this week is a difficult thing to capture in individual photos, Twitter videos, and words. The broader picture will take time to paint. We know that some of the worst and most concentrated devastation came to two neighborhoods in Santa Rosa late Sunday night and early Monday morning. We know that at least 31 people are dead and that number has risen steadily over the last 48 hours with 15 of those dead found in Sonoma County, and over 100 still said to be missing. The human impacts will be felt for days and months for those who survived and lost their homes, and those who have been evacuated and await word on their homes. We also know the wine industry is going to be picking up the pieces and sorting out what was lost for weeks to come.
Among the first stories to arrive of victims trapped by fire the first two to be publicly identified was that of the Rippeys, an elderly Napa couple aged 100 and 98 whose caretaker was unable to save them as the early stages of the Atlas Fire tore into their home Sunday night.
Today we're learning about 69-year-old Linda Tunis, whose daughter Jessica spent the last several days searching for her both via social media and with Missing Person posters. She tells the Associated Press that her mother lived in the Journey's End mobile home park in Santa Rosa, much of which was destroyed in the flames. And on Wednesday, her brother confirmed Linda Tunis's death after sifting through the ashes himself, and finding her remains there.
The Washington Post tells the terrifying story of Daniel and Cindy Pomplun whose home was filled with smoke and engulfed in flames faster than they could get away. They crouched down beneath smoke on the ground floor and ultimately decided to jump in their freezing cold pool to escape from the flames, and they remained there, ducking underwater as flames passed overhead and coming up to breathe sporadically, for about 90 minutes. After the fire passed, they lay shivering on the hot stones beside the pool, taking off one piece of clothing at a time to dry them on the stones. They then evacuated on foot over a mile and a half, first breaking in to a neighbor's house to get shoes and warmer clothing.
The New York Times has collected a number of harrowing oral accounts from survivors and evacuees. One, Maren McCloud, relayed the story of how her neighbor was "relentless" in ringing her family's doorbell and knocking on their door, because their phones were turned off. "Because of her we got out with our two young children," she says, explaining that they've had reports that their house is still there, but "the whole neighborhood right next to ours is gone."
One nine-months-pregnant Santa Rosa woman, Charity Ruiz, tells SFGate the tale of bicycling out of the Coffey Park neighborhood which ended up looking like this after the Tubbs Fire moved through with her two toddler daughters hooked up to the bike in a trailer, worried that vehicle traffic getting out of the neighborhood was moving too slowly. She was able to bike them to safety and meet up with her husband at a friend's house, and all are safe. Ruiz is due next week.
NBC Bay Area has the story of a heroic rescue by a CHP copter on Atlas Peak Sunday night, when the Atlas fire trapped a family of five, the Tamayos. The helicopter only fit four passengers, so pilot Pete Gavitte had to take the family out in two shifts as flames surged in every direction.
Nearby in Santa Rosa, escaping the same fire early Monday morning, Ryan Nelson tells the Associated Press that he's wracked with guilt over not doing more to save two elderly neighbors. He knew the man in his 70s only by his first name, Manjeet, and knew that his wife had multiple sclerosis and was never seen outside. Nelson said he banged on their windows as the rushed evacuation was happening, but their home is now a total loss and he fears the worst.
And we learned the other day that multiple cannabis farms in Sonoma were likely affected by the Tubbs and Nuns Fire, and now Green State gets the story of SPARC founder Erich Pearson, who went to bed Sunday night on a ridge overlooking Glen Ellen noticing how extreme the wind was, after worrying that eucalyptus trees along the road might fall down. He had a large crop of marijuana planted at his farm just down the hill awaiting harvest on Tuesday. "I went to bed thinking at minimum the plants were going to be trashed and greenhouse plastic was going to be everywhere," Pearson says.
He awoke just a few hours later, at 1:30 a.m., to an orange glow in the valley where the farm was. "I woke up my friend [and co-worker], we left the house and we knew the bottom of the hill was on fire," Pearson tells Green State. "We were concerned the farm was on fire and the whole thing was on fire." Pearson then spent the day assessing damage and communicating with firemen, ultimately flagging down a Berkeley fire crew driving up the road and wrangling them to help save his friend's house, where he'd been sleeping. It now remains as one of the only houses to survive on that road.
The estimates of number of houses lost remain fluid and as the New York Times noted today, satellite images show about triple the number of houses destroyed in Santa Rosa alone versus the current Cal Fire estimate. It could be upwards of 2,500 to 3,000, with all the fires combined.
Whether we continue to consider these fires as separate events or not they all could be found to have similar causes in the same Diablo wind conditions, and sparked nearly simultaneously the Norther California swarm of fires that are ongoing will be historic for all the most tragic reasons.