Man Who Alerted Neighbors to Wildfire Hailed as ‘Tremendous Hero’

Don Riveras, 21, saved many lives from the raging fires that destroyed his Coffey Park neighborhood in Santa Rosa by going door to door to warn people to evacuate immediately. (Sarah Craig/KQED)

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.

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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.

Anna Solano and Donny Riveras meet after fire swept through their Coffey Park neighborhood.
Anna Solano and Donny Riveras meet after fire swept through their Coffey Park neighborhood. (Courtesy of Anna Solano)

“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.

Anna Solano and Donny Riveras at the Sheriff’s Center near Solano county airport. (Courtesy of Anna Solano)

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.

Donny Riveras' mother Kelli, sister Jessica and father at their home in Santa Rosa, CA on October 22, 2017.
Donny Riveras’ mother Kelli, sister Jessica and father Matt at their home in Santa Rosa on Oct. 22, 2017. (Sarah Craig/KQED)

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.

A screen capture from video of Donny Riveras, who awakened Santa Rosa teacher Anna Solano as a wildfire approached her home early Oct. 9, 2017. This photo helped Solano and Riveras connect. (Courtesy of Anna Solano)

“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.

Don Riveras lived on Dogwood Drive in the Coffey Park neighborhood that was destroyed by the Tubbs Fire.
Don Riveras lived on Dogwood Drive in the Coffey Park neighborhood that was destroyed by the Tubbs Fire. (Sarah Craig/KQED)

“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.

Man Who Alerted Neighbors to Wildfire Hailed as ‘Tremendous Hero’ 24 October,2017Julia McEvoy

  • Cynthia

    Omg such a HERO! I am so glad he was found, I think he’s earned his wings. He seriously needs to join the fire department or police departments.

  • Carmela Biggs

    Bless your heart!! You live the Golden Rule..Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

  • RokitSientis

    Beautiful, brave young man, this is what real heart looks like. I know his family are incredibly proud of him, along with the whole community. Whatever Donny Riveras decides to do, I believe he will build a good life for himself, he’s got the basic human qualities that matter above all else. I wish him the absolute best!!

  • goodsam73

    what a fine young man — his parents must be so proud of him ! Thank you Donny Riveras for saving your neighbors. I hope some other good folks step up to help Donny now find a place to live.

Author

Julia McEvoy

Julia McEvoy is the senior editor, features and enterprise for KQED News.

Julia got into reporting covering Chicago’s Latino communities for a Spanish-language TV news station, then began freelancing Latino-centric stories for public radio. That lead to radio documentary work, then to editing, and eventually executive producing Chicago Matters, an award-winning public affairs series.  Julia founded WBEZ’s Ear to the Ground mentorship program, bringing community contributors stories to air and on-line.

Julia’s editorial work has received a Peabody Award, a Casey Medal for Coverage of Children and Families, several Edward R. Murrow awards, as well as awards from the Public Radio News Directors Inc. and the Society for Professional Journalists.

Get in touch: jmcevoy@kqed.org or @juliamcevoy1

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