First it was Anna Solano, then it was Fran Bengtsson, telling how a young man knocked on their doors and woke them the night of the Tubbs Fire. There are others he saved, people who would like to thank him.
They were asleep in their homes in Coffey Park in Santa Rosa the night the Tubbs Fire whipped down from the hills and jumped Highway 101 into the densely populated neighborhood. Both Solano and Bengtsson are certain they made it out that night only because of one very determined young man.
FIRE HERO: A Santa Rosa woman says this stranger saved her life by alerting her as the #NorthBayFires neared + now she wants to thank him. https://t.co/38nKTqYR8O
“Don Riveras, I think is his name,” Fran Bengtsson said as she stood next to her burnt-out home on Dogwood Drive in Coffey Park. “He moved in just a couple of weeks ago.”
Bengtsson had come back to sift through the wreckage for what she could salvage. She pointed down the block as she recalled what Riveras did that night.
“He went across the street to this area, and he went down the street all the way over to Mocha Lane,” Bengtsson said. “He was just incredible. If he hadn’t knocked on my door, you would not be holding a microphone to my mouth right now. So a hero. Just a tremendous hero. And so blessings on him, he saved my life.”
Last week, we told you about Anna Solano, a Santa Rosa high school teacher who wanted to find the person who saved her to thank him for getting her out in time. We posted his photo, captured by the security camera on Solano’s front landing. In the video, he can be seen knocking on her door as people fled in cars under a dark, reddish sky.
Several readers helped identify the man as Donny Riveras. On Saturday, Solano met Riveras to deliver that thank you.
“I was happy to see she was OK,” Riveras said of their meeting. “She’s taking everything pretty well. She’s a very strong woman and everything’s going to be OK.”
“He is a caring, humble, mature and respectful young man,” Solano said after meeting with Riveras. “He has a good head on his shoulders. He felt that it was his duty to knock on door to door to make sure people were safe.”
Solano learned Riveras lost everything he owned in the fire and that the front of his red Ford truck was melted in the blaze. So she took him to a sheriff’s station Saturday to get clothes and essentials. Riveras said he was able to pick up a few shirts.
Now, two weeks after the disaster that has transformed this town, Riveras says he’s trying to put the night of the fire behind him.
“I just kind of see it all as a bad dream. It isn’t real, so I just keep moving forward,” he said.
Right now, he’s focused on getting a new apartment.
“Finding a place to live will be really hard right now with the prices in this county,” said Riveras, 21, who is trying to get a job as a correctional officer. “And at my age with not as much experience as most, it will be tough to get back on my feet … but there’s nothing I can’t do if I put my mind to it.”
Riveras grew up here. His family lives a few minutes north of Coffey Park.
On the night of the firestorm, his mom, Kelli Riveras, was driving her horse trailer to a nearby ranch to try to rescue some horses from the fire. No one knew Coffey Park was in danger at this point, but then she got a call from her son.
“Donny called and he sounded panicked,” Kelli said. “He said, ‘Mom, things are not good here,’ and he hung up.”
In the horse hauler with her mom was Donny’s 19-year-old sister, Jessica. She was monitoring Snapchat for information on the fire, her friends and her brother.
“The whole way coming down from Chalk Hill and I’m seeing Snapchats and I’m seeing my brother’s and there is just glow in Coffey Park,” Jessica said.
Riveras said he and his roommate, Jon Edmunds, knocked on many doors that night, but he remembers Anna Solano’s. He remembers looking into the security camera, hoping she would see him.
“Every house before had opened the door and hers was the first where someone didn’t, so I was worried. So I pounded a little extra hard and waited until I got that little yell from upstairs, and that was good,” Riveras said.
Around 2 a.m., Jessica said her brother posted a Snapchat video, “And he says, ‘If anyone wants to know, this is what Coffey Park looks like right now.’ So I called him and told him I was really worried right now, and he said, ‘Yeah, I’m OK. I gotta go, I gotta go.’ ”
“It was all on fire,” Riveras said. “It all happened so fast. The whole park was gone in about a half-hour. I was knocking on as many doors as I could. The fire marshal said we had five minutes, we were done evacuating. That’s when I did the video.”
Riveras believes firefighters did everything they could that night. But there was a moment when he wondered why was it just him and his roommate out there trying to get people out. He recalled stopping one homeowner trying to put out a gas fire with his garden hose and telling him to head out before it was too late.
“I was furious in the middle of it that no one else was doing it,” Riveras said. “I’m not blaming anyone or trying to make people feel bad, but people should play out some scenarios in their head: ‘What am I going to do when this happens?’ ”
Riveras said he wasn’t thinking about his possessions or immediate needs, but of his neighbors.
“They could have died, and I don’t think I could have gone to sleep at night knowing I could have knocked on a door or two.”
For those interested in helping Riveras recover from his own loss, there is a GoFundMe.