(TNS) - The inferno swept up over a wooded ridge, like many California wildfires do, but this one was different.
Like a terror in the night, this wall of wind-whipped flames took direct aim for the heart of a city, not just the rural outskirts, not just the homes high in the hills or off the grid. The Tubbs fire — one of 14 wildfires that scarred the people and property of eight Northern California counties late Sunday and early Monday — incinerated dozens of city blocks in Santa Rosa, destroying so many of the trappings of suburban life; from the Hilton Sonoma Wine Country and Fountaingrove Inn to a technology park, from Applebee’s and Arby’s to Kmart and Kohl’s.
The fire skipped across Highway 101, obliterating the heart of neighborhoods too.
“These fires happen in the hills, in the rural area, not a neighborhood,” said David Kay, 54, clearly stunned as he returned to his home in the Coffey Park neighborhood Monday morning and found nothing but rubble for blocks and blocks. “You think you’re safe in a neighborhood.”
In one of the most surreal scenes, broadcast on KGO TV, a team of Kaiser Permanente nurses and doctors, faces covered by respirators, gently raced critical patients in hospital beds down the street, with bright orange flames in the background. About 130 patients were safely evacuated in three hours, including women in labor and a “very sick” child. Some hospital employees drove patients in their own cars.
When the evacuation started at 3 a.m., the patients “were stunned. They didn’t have time to process a thing,” said Judi Goodin, the hospital’s safety operations leader.
If patients could get out of bed on their own, they did, she said. “If not, we grabbed people from their beds and put them in wheelchairs.”
The fire came perilously close to Kaiser Santa Rosa medical center and its huge liquid oxygen and diesel tanks. Firefighters weren’t sure they could stave off the blaze that was engulfing the adjacent mobile home park called “Journey’s End,” she said.
“We realized early on that this fire, it was going to come into Santa Rosa,” Santa Rosa Fire Chief Tony Gossner said Monday night, describing how the department called in every firefighter, every resource as the Tubbs fire roared into town.
His crews initially set up in the Kmart parking lot, “but it didn’t take long before we realized this was not a good spot.” The big box store was one of dozens that burned down.
Investigators are only beginning to figure out what started this and the dozen other fires sparked late Sunday, but when the winds whipped up so did the Sonoma County emergency dispatch center with reports of down power lines and blown transformers. At least 10 people have died in the fires — seven in Sonoma County — but authorities warned that number could climb with up to 100 people reported missing.
Local law enforcement and fire officials on Monday urged people to stay away from the evacuation areas and off the roads. But with so many emergency crews fighting fires, there were few to keep people from walking past the road blocks.
As residents returned Monday afternoon for a glimpse of what was left, the scenes around the city were apocalyptic: old people on canes and walkers shuffling along sidewalks through the orange glow; families dragging luggage and wearing blue surgical masks through the thick smoke.
“We’re just trying to see if it’s still there,” said Michele Mills, 70, pushing her walker along Coffey Lane, heading to her home a few blocks away.
In a daze, residents tried somehow to digest the growing toll: The Hidden Valley Satellite Elementary School — burned down. Willi’s Wine Bar and Cricklewood Restaurant on Old Redwood Highway — destroyed. Classrooms and offices at Cardinal Newman High School — burned to the ground. So was Fountaingrove’s historic Round Barn, built in 1899.
The east end of the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts was scorched, as was part of the Keysight technology park, where a BMW and Audi in the parking lot were burned out, but like so many bizarre scenes from a wind-fueled fire storm, a bright red Porsche Targa two rows over was spared. So was the Charles Schulz Museum on the west side of Highway 101.
Residents of this city of 175,000 fled in the middle of the night, with nothing but their pets — and many without them — and returned Monday to nothing but ruins.
In the rubble of the Coffey Park neighborhood, Patsy and Heinz Streckfuss found nothing but a brick fireplace.
“Oh God. That’s our house,” said Patsy, 76, as she came upon the wreckage. The couple had just replaced all of the wooden floors and built a gazebo out back. “The whole block is gone.”
In fact, every block as far as she could see was gone.
And so was her calico cat, Rosie, who had bolted into hiding the night before.
“Rosie, Rosie!” she called out. “Rosie!”
The couple were awakened at about 1:30 a.m. Monday when a gust of wind blew through the house and slammed a door closed inside. Heinz said that’s when a neighbor pounded on the door.
“I opened the door in my skivvies,” Heinz said.
“You better get your clothes on and get out of here,” his neighbor said.
They could see flames at the end of the block. They quickly dressed and jumped in the car to drive away — with nothing but his phone and her purse. They spent the night in a Raley’s supermarket parking lot across town.
This fire, which started in Calistoga, is being compared with the Valley Fire in 2015 in neighboring Lake County, which was considered one of the hottest and fastest in memory.
“We had 20,000 acres in 12 hours,” said Cal Fire Capt. Richard Cordova on Monday afternoon of the Tubbs fire. “It’s pretty much unheard of.”
As the sun set Monday night, severed natural gas lines flared throughout the city, fire trucks tore through the streets and the residents of Santa Rosa were only beginning to comprehend their loss.
“Now, what do I do?” Heinz Streckfuss said. “Now, what do I do?”
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