The following was originally published as a Facebook post on the Santa Rosa Police Department’s page, and was expanded in a post on Medium. It is republished here with permission from police Capt. Craig Schwartz.
The evening of Sunday, Oct. 8, 2017, started off as a pretty normal night, with the exception of the wind. It was howling, making it hard to sleep with the noise of trees blowing and things banging into my house in northeast Santa Rosa. I would later learn that the record-setting winds that night were blowing at 50 mph, with gusts near 70 mph around my city. At the highest peaks north of town the sustained winds blew at a hurricane force of 84 mph, with gusts around 100 mph.
At about 15 minutes before 10 p.m. that night, a fire started near Tubbs Lane outside the town of Calistoga, 12 miles northeast of Santa Rosa. The strong, dry winds blew the fires at us with shocking speed, and within four hours much of the city was on fire. Before the night ended at least 19 people had died and over 5,100 structures were reduced to ash. Over 3,000 homes were lost in the city of Santa Rosa alone in a matter of hours.
There are many stories to tell from the morning of Oct. 9. Tales of tragedy and heroism, lives lost and many more lives saved. I served as the Operations Section Chief in the city’s emergency operations center that night and in the days to come, and I can tell you that it was the most traumatic and terrifying night of my 25-year career, even though I was in no danger myself. Listening to my officers’ radio traffic about the rescues they were carrying out across wide swaths of northern Santa Rosa had me convinced that hundreds of people, including some of our officers, would not survive the night. The fire was just coming too fast in the middle of the night.
My wife had evacuated our house as the fire approached from nearby Calistoga Road, and for the first time in my career I was working an incident in which my own home and family were threatened. Many of our employees faced far worse and actually lost their homes that night. Even so, they showed up and went to work protecting others.
The heroism on display from police officers, firefighters, sheriff’s deputies, bus drivers, residents and many others was amazing to witness. Every one was a first responder that night, and many of our citizens went above and beyond to protect their friends, family and neighbors. I believe it is because of these extraordinary efforts that so many were saved. The stories from that night deserve to be told, and this first recounting brings you just a small portion of the events of Oct. 8 and 9 by telling of the actions of a few of the Santa Rosa police officers who were on duty or came in to help.
Officer Andy Adams is a Santa Rosa patrol officer who was working the swing shift the night of the fires, and began evacuating people from the area of Skyfarm and St. Andrews drives about 11:30 p.m. As he tells it, the fire moved so quickly that it engulfed the area where he and Officer Eric St. Germain were driving. As they worked to evacuate residents, they found a woman, who lived in the 3900 block of St. Andrews Drive, trying to escape the firestorm. They told her to follow them out by driving her car between their patrol cars. The fire was blowing across the road in their path, however, and they had to turn around.
The smoke was so thick that it was nearly impossible to see, and the woman ran into the curb on one side of the road and then the other. Officer Adams passed her and led the way out by driving with the reflective center-line markers between his tires. Even then, a burning tree had fallen across the road and almost prevented their escape. The two officers got the woman out of harm’s way, then went back into the fire to rescue more people.
In the 3700 block of Skyfarm Drive, Officer Adams and Officer Dave Pedersen found several people at a house down a long driveway. The first man they encountered there said he couldn’t get out, so they told him to get in Officer Pedersen’s car. The man said his family was inside but they couldn’t get out because the power was out and the garage door wouldn’t open. Officer Adams ran into the house, popped the emergency release on the garage door and opened it so the family could escape in their own car. The officers continued their work and evacuated residents from the Hopper Lane Apartments and Coffey Park once the fire had jumped Highway 101.
At one home on Keoke Court, Officer Adams, Officer St. Germain and others carried a number of wheelchair-bound elderly residents to their patrol cars as “fire whirls,” or tornados of burning embers, blew around them. Near the end of what would have been Officer Adams’ 12½-hour shift his radio battery died and he had to go back to the police department for a replacement, where he met up with Sgt. Pehlke.
Sgt. Steve Pehlke was not supposed to work that night, but came in at about 3 a.m. when he got the call about the firestorm. He met Officer Adams at the Police Department and, since patrol cars were getting scarce, they paired up to rescue more people.
Their first call together was to the Varenna Senior Living Apartments. As they drove up Fountaingrove Parkway, the fire had burned many of the buildings in the area and was burning within feet of the road. They had to dodge burning trees that had blown down in the heavy winds and blocked the road. When they got to Varenna they found a woman trying to evacuate her mother from a building that was already on fire. They found dozens of elderly residents in the lobby of the smoke-filled building and, along with other officers, checked the building for any other people. The heroic woman they had encountered loaded four or five of the residents into her car, while Sgt. Pehlke and Officer Adams were able to get more officers and city buses there to evacuate the rest of the residents.
After completing those rescues, they had to help rescue an elderly woman who was trapped in a motel room near the bottom of Fountaingrove Parkway, and then were sent back to Varenna and eventually to an address on Tall Pine Circle. A woman had called 911 to say she had evacuated her house there, but her husband was trapped inside and the house was on fire. Sgt. Pehlke and Officer Adams found the whole neighborhood engulfed in flames, with fire a mere 3 to 4 feet from their patrol car as they drove in. They got to the house in question, and although all the houses around it were burning, it had not yet caught fire. They found the elderly man in his bedroom and walked him to their patrol car as burning embers blew all around them. Sgt. Pehlke saw the man had no clothes, so he ran back into the house and grabbed some clothing as well as several pictures hanging on the walls.
The three fled the house, driving through the blowing embers and fire, to deliver the man safely to the Veterans Memorial Building shelter before they drove back into Fountaingrove to conduct more rescues. As they drove up the hill from Brush Creek Road, though, they smelled the odor of burning rubber and saw smoke pouring through the air vents on their dashboard. Sgt. Pehlke made a quick U-turn to get out of the fire zone and then saw flames licking up at his feet from the floor of the car. They got to the bottom of the hill and jumped out, quickly grabbing the computer, rifle and shotgun, before the car was completely engulfed in flames.
Even though their car burned, their work continued and they were back out in a different vehicle to continue the evacuations. Sgt. Pehlke snapped the photo shown at the top of this story about 30 seconds after he and Andy Adams got out of the burning car. This is the kind of extraordinary work that we saw over and over during the fires of October. We look forward to sharing more of these stories with you, and invite you to share your stories with us. As I said, people looking out for their friends, family and neighbors showed incredible selflessness and heroism. Their stories should be told as well.
For an idea of what people in the path of the fire faced that night, you can see this video released by the Berkeley Fire Department: