Patrick and Judy — Our Story

We lived in Santa Rosa's Fountaingrove neighborhood. That day started with our smoke alarms sounding at around 4 a.m. Our house was on fire.

We jumped out of bed — me in boxer shorts and my wife in just a robe. I didn't have time to grab my glasses. We just ran barefoot through the smoke and flames to the front door.  When we opened it, we will never forget what we saw — it can only be described as an inferno. Everywhere we looked — flames. Our front porch, our neighbors’ houses, the trees and even the dirt. Everything was on fire. And there was no one else in sight.

After a moment of pure shock, instinct kicked in and I grabbed Judy’s hand and we began running uphill — which, fortunately, turned out to be the right decision.

We were breathing smoke and the wind was blowing sparks directly at us, burning every part of our bodies. Our feet were blistered from the heat. We literally dragged ourselves up the hill, burning and choking and barely able to see for about 15 minutes — the longest 8th of a mile of our lives.

Eventually, we saw car lights about 20 feet ahead of us. The smoke was so think that the driver didn’t see us. Judy screamed, and I pounded on the hood and window of the truck. Our saviors were two off duty firemen who were risking their own lives driving through the fire and debris to check for survivors. We are forever grateful to these men.

Mark and Margaret — Our Story

The day before the tragedy, we took our last trip to Santa Rosa to do the final shopping for my 50th birthday party, which was scheduled for 10/14/17. We bought more food and most birthday party decorations that night. The house was full of food, including a lot of smoked sausages, pork tenderloins (which Mark explicitly made for the party, full smoker), and homemade wine. It was very windy (50mph) that night. While crossing the mountains, loose branches were flying around.

Because driving was not easy in these conditions, we were pretty tired that night. I don’t remember when I fell asleep. What I remember is that Mark woke me up in the middle of the night telling me that there is a big fire around and we have to leave the house NOW. The house was pitch dark inside (no electricity), the only source of light was the fire outside.

Mark gave me a tiny flashlight so I could put shoes on. Because the house was dark and full of smoke and I was gasping for fresh air, I instinctually knew that it was time to leave. I just didn’t have a choice!!! I ran around the house yelling and trying to grab whatever was around. I was able to save some documents, keys, a few clothes, some cheap jewelry from the bathroom, and some stupid not important items —for example, a throw. Because there was no time, nor any visibility to open our safes, all is gone.

While running around, at one point I bumped into something big and hard, fell down and quickly got up because Mark was leaving the house. I was not even fully aware at that time that I injured my knee pretty badly. My focus was primarily on breathing and leaving the place as fast as I possibly could. Honestly, I don’t believe we had more than 5-10 minutes to leave our home. It was simply impossible to breathe.

Before starting engines, a fire truck suddenly showed up in front of our house and a fireman told us that we have to leave the area immediately, and the only way is Lakeshore Drive. When I looked at the direction the fireman showed me, I got really scared, as everywhere were flames. The whole mountain was engulfed in flames, including both sides of Lakeshore Drive in many places. I just couldn’t believe that it was real!

I was completely paralyzed. It reminded me of all the action movies where guys were driving through fire. So, I did the same thing, speeded up, past neighbors’ houses already burned in half, and suddenly found myself in nearly complete darkness. Completely shocked, I immediately slammed on breaks and suddenly stopped right in front of a big fire truck — avoiding collision with it was another real miracle during the night!

When I got to Safeway parking, I think it was 3:30 am, but don’t cite me, please. I immediately called Mark, because I was very worried about him. He could be easily trapped by collapsed, burned houses and all the flying debris. Fortunately, the road was still passable. I’m absolutely convinced that we left Gooseneck area in the last minutes. If only one house collapsed onto the road, the only escape route at that crucial moment would be completely blocked and we would never leave the area alive.

The next day, our friend let us stay in their place and one of my co-workers, whom I called, helped us with finding the current rental house. We also came back to Clearlake later to see if our house survived, but the police stopped us on the way, packed us up like criminalists and we ended up back in downtown Clearlake, by the police office. Believe me, it’s not fun to sit on a steal bench in the police car.

Our rental house in Kelseyville is okay. It’s quiet, but definitely not an equivalent of our home on the lake! Since it’s located far away from the lake, and on the other side, higher in the mountains, it’s much colder, power bills are higher, water from well is full of iron, and we are much farther from all businesses, and most important, my work. Daily commuting to work doubled (in terms of time and money), and this is definitely the most annoying part of the relocation.

As a result of the Sulphur fire, our lifestyle completely changed, not only because of the distances and spending more time in cars, but also because of our health problems (PTSD and my knee injury). In general, we are not people who love doctors. We didn’t even have a real family doctor before the fire. Now, we are under care of doctors. We both suffer from PTSD, but Mark is the only one who consistently is on meds. Both of us got PT therapy at the beginning of the year. Mark still continues his meds for stress and depression, but stopped PT services.

My situation looks different. I had to stop the meds because I was not able to work. I take them only when I don’t sleep for two nights in the row or can’t control my anxiety. I was getting PT services twice a week from December to April, and still had to add chiropractor’s therapy for “seg. and somatic dysf. of lower extremity, pain in RT knee and hip, myalgia, and localized edema.” Graston therapy seemed to work, and overall, combining both PT and Graston was a good idea, but overall, it took me nearly seven months to recover from my knee injury! I still can’t fully join a gym for Zumba or Yoga, but at least can do short hikes in the last month. I significantly gained weight since October, but still I’m happy to be alive at all.

Nevertheless, I can’t plan my vacations to my lovely jungle countries because I don’t know how my knee will behave in summer. In addition to already ruined plans for Thanksgiving break, Christmas break, presidential week break (we did some itemized lists to the best of our mental ability on any given day), a perspective for vacation seems to look dim, too. In addition, I experienced pretty strange numbness in my face that night. Immediately after the fire, I couldn’t feel my face from the stress. The problem slowly subsided for a while, but it still comes back when I’m super stressed. Insomnia and flashbacks also continue, but as I said I can’t take the pills all the time. I use them only when I can’t really function at all. I suffer from constant gastrointestinal problems too.

When it comes to my husband's situation, Mark was working as a self-employed owner- operated truck driver for several years, coast to coast. He was a very good driver with still clean record after driving 500,000 miles since he started his own business several years ago. Unfortunately, due to really severe PTSD symptoms, he needs to be on meds. His doctor and I won’t allow him to be back in the truck. He can’t concentrate, is very forgetful, misses exits on the highway, and has been depressed since the day he saved me and himself from sure death. If not for him, I would not be writing this email now.

That day, we lost another source of income, the significant income. Apart from losing it, there is a lot of anxiety on my side too, since we usually had two sources of income. Being the only provider in our household, it’s not easy. In the meantime, our truck with trailer (75ft) deteriorates in Washington. One way trip to our truck is over 600 miles! If Mark’s mental condition won’t significantly improve, we’ll permanently lose the truck and the business. He finally started getting counseling services, but the effect is minimal so far.

We decided on rebuilding our house for many reasons. The process will be long and painful and our neighborhood never ever will be the same again, but we love our lake and I work here. We are very attached to our place on the lake and can’t get over the damage! Clearlake was our favorite vacation spot since 1987, even before we moved here for good in 2005-06. The lake is full of life and it’s a real paradise for us, outdoor souls and adventurists. I’m a big bird lover and in fire, I lost thousands of pics of birds from last 25 years! Also, thousands of pics from over 30 countries!

Before the fire, we used to be real outdoor souls constantly busy doing things Iike sailing, boating, fishing, shooting, hunting, hiking, birding or traveling abroad. We both are big nature lovers, but it looks like it will take us longer than I thought to recover from the mess we are in since the fire. We are constantly super tired. I had to take a week of time off due to fire and in addition, had a lot of additional stress at work due to the fact that my school district was closed for a week. It was not really fun to lose the two weeks because in general, my work is defined by constant deadlines.

If someone would ask me to define all the stress we went through and still largely experience, I could list them as follows:

1. We barely survived and consider this as a miracle survival. (Nobody woke us up. Nixel didn’t work). A sense of security is gone forever. Flashbacks continue and cause insomnia and anxiety.

2. Mark’s mental health is now my biggest worry. His vision (blurry vision) slightly improved, but concentration, memory and depression has not.

3. Loss of his past, current and possibly future income is another source of constant anxiety.

4. Loss of my full mobility and inability to maintain my normal active lifestyle.

5. Stress of sudden re-location to Kelseyville, adapting to new place, extra driving to Sacramento and Bay area to find some furniture.

6. Stress of not being able to rebuild and /or finding the right crew to start the process. We still have not received the building permits and didn’t settle down the price of rebuilding house with our insurance.

7. Constant tiredness due to insomnia and knee pain. Constant stress at work plus stress at home.

8. Stress of dealing with all the agencies, FEMA, SBA loans, Century-National, Bank of America, utility companies etc.

9. Extra commuting and driving. What a loss of time!

10. No social life because we are not in mood of doing anything besides what is absolutely necessary. We are constantly mentally tired. It feels like a trance or bad dream!

11. Doing the itemized lists for Century-National is one of the most horrible things that all disaster survivors have to go through. This process is absolutely heart-breaking, mentally and emotionally so draining that there is not much energy left for anything else. Besides, it’s extremely time-consuming and the only time I can do it is a longer break. During a week, when I work from 8-4:30pm, I can’t find any power to do this and this by itself creates enormous additional stress on a daily basis! It really feels like a nightmare.

12. Of course, my 50th birthday was destroyed with all holiday breaks. I had to call off the party. All holidays are lost because nobody can do the itemized lists for us.

13. Our previous neighborhood looks like a war zone. Literally! The landscape was permanently altered and damaged. As far as we know, most neighbors won’t come back for a few reasons: they were too old to rebuild their houses or re-building will be too costly. As a result, a sense of community and related security may be or is gone forever. We had good neighbors who watched over our house. Even if we re-build the house, the windows will be constantly dirty from dirt coming from the mountains.

14. The beauty of the lake and the whole surrounding has been significantly destroyed: Most trees are burned including our corner tall willow (which gave us a lot of needed shade during always hot summers in lake county), garden, vines and flowers. The chance for mudslides increased. The rusty, old piers are gone. All homes are gone. The beautiful palm trees that looked so pretty on the Mt. Konocti background are gone as well. The old charm is gone forever and this is why we bought the house.

15. Building a new house is the biggest and very stressful process for anybody, even when people consciously plan having a new house. For us, the stress will be tripled because the change was so unexpected and not welcome. Rebuilding after tragedy will be a very painful process, especially that our county lacks really professional workforce in nearly any area. Workforce shortage and huge demand cause all prices going up in very short time.

16. We lost a lot of important documents and re-ordering all of them won’t be possible at all. A lot of documents, thousands of pictures from the day we were born until now, and personal things that have sentimental value. We get really frustrated when we even start thinking about it. It’s like a poison for our souls! Going through ashes of our lovely home was extremely traumatic.

17. Doctors, PT therapies, chiropractors visits consume so much time and are so costly that we had never had so many medical bills (that never will be paid by our medical insurance). The med bills pile up very quickly these days. All eye glasses had to be re-done. All meds bought. I truly worry about my mobility because I love long hikes.

18. My big collection of pretty, expensive masks and ceramic from all 30 trips around the world are gone. And all pics from all previous vacations!

19. I lost over a week of deductible leave at work because of the stress related to fire. If I get sick in the future, won’t have enough sick days to stay at home. Not fun!

20. It looks like my vacation will be destroyed because we have not finished doing the itemized lists. Dealing with the insurance is an ongoing nightmare.

Hope you now have a better picture of our situation. We won’t allow PG&E to escape from the responsibility for all the damage and suffering we and all other Wine Country fire victims have experienced.

Dale — My Story

I awoke at 1:20am to the roaring sound of wind and fire, which sounded like a jet engine. I looked out my sliding glass bedroom door seeing massive flames pushed by the 80+ MPH fire. My house was already on fire on the northeast end. I jumped up putting on Levi pants and slippers and ran through the house picking up my cell phone in the kitchen, out through the garage (the garage doors were open) to my truck. My two outdoor English Labs were waiting at the truck and jumped in as soon as I opened the door.  I drove down my private driveway through a firestorm as Annadel State Park, which adjoins my property, was also on fire pushing toward my home from the north. Fortunately, I escaped unharmed. Unfortunately, I received no warning of the fires. Landlines were down, cell phones unusable as all the towers were being destroyed.

The two fires, Nuns coming up the hill and the Annadel, met at my home and formed a vortex that Cal Fire stated must have had winds exceeding 150 MPH and the temperature well in excess of 3,000 degrees F. I lost absolutely everything I owned, including all family items from 51 years of marriage, a 1913 Model T Ford Roadster, a 1914 Model T Ford Touring Car (Ford Motor Company’s 100-year Anniversary car), a 1967 MGB, custom Model T trailer, a 16-foot fishing boat, and $19,000 of damage to my 2010 Lexus. But I got out with my life and dogs.

I made it to my friend’s home in Novato 12 hours later and stayed with them until Nov. 1, when I moved into a furnished VRBO home in the Village of Kenwood. I have 3.1 acres of property that was severely burned. I hired an arborist, MacNair Associates, who counted 212 severely damaged oak and madrone trees. In addition, 18 oaks and two 50-foot tall redwood trees were completely destroyed around the building envelope, let alone all the landscaping, including 54 rose bushes and various dogwoods and azaleas. MacNair’s recommendation is to leave the trees alone to see if nature will bring them back, but he is very doubtful this will occur due to the excessive heat they experienced.

The 3,250 sq. ft. home has been cleared, including the foundation. Fifty-four tons of debris was removed. The swimming pool is intact, but will require all new equipment, emptied, cleaned, re-surfaced with plaster, re-tiled and re-decked. The well has been restarted with a new 5,000-gallon storage tank installed. The septic system has been repaired and checks out, and Sonoma County has approved the property fit for rebuilding. I will submit dwgs to the County for building permits in late April or early May with construction hopefully starting in mid-May.

I am 75 years old born in March of 1943. I have bone cancer diagnosed in late 2016, given 4 to 10 years maximum to live. My wife of 51 years passed away May 2, 2016 and I have lived alone since then. This has been my home for 27 years, but these fires have completely destroyed my life. I spend days working with my insurance company, State Farm, an architect, contractors, and inputting into the State Farm “Contents Collaboration” software program all my personal items. I have spent over 90 hours a week since Oct. 11, 2017 until mid-January, let alone the hours and days working with the County and others. It has become a full-time job.

I hope the new home can be built within 2 years so I can live in it for a couple of years, if my cancer allows it. I’m forced to downsize from the 3,250 sq. ft. to 2,700 or less, depending on the cost per square foot. If it's over $450-$500 per square foot, I can’t afford to rebuild and will have to pay off my mortgage and sell the property.

Mahmoud and Fari — Our Story

As I try to write about the fire, even 6 months later, I can’t help but cry. The emotions are still very raw. It doesn’t help that we are still living in a rental 30 minutes from work. That our home is still nowhere close to being rebuilt. That it will probably cost us about $150,000 out of our own pockets just to get back the home we lost since insurance isn’t enough. That no amount of money will return all of the photographs, wedding dresses, antiques, and heirlooms that burned in the fires.

My parents came to the United States in 1984 with a dream of having a better life. They worked hard. Very hard. My mother went to work every morning at 5 a.m. My father worked until 10:00 p.m. They did this for decades, all to give me a better life. A few years ago, they finally purchased their dream home, the home they always wanted to have. They were so proud of it. Then the fire happened, and it was all destroyed.

My father has Parkinson’s disease and a heart condition. The fire really hurt him both physically and emotionally. He told me, “All the years I worked for this and it’s all gone. All those years of hard work are gone.” These statements are so painful. Now, over 6 months later, we’re still nowhere close to rebuilding. We’re waiting on engineers, then plans, then permits, and then rebuilding God knows when. The worst part is that my parents have to use their life savings and probably borrow money just to get back the exact house they lost. They’re not trying to upgrade or change it. They just want the exact house back. Unfortunately, insurance isn’t close to enough.

This entire experience has broken our hearts. It continues to affect us. My parents continue to live in a home that is nothing close to the same as the home they lost. They now have to commute 30 minutes just to go to work because they couldn’t find any rentals in Santa Rosa. They lost everything. Every heirloom from their own parents and grandparents. All of my baby and childhood pictures, their wedding pictures, everything is gone.

Simply trying to get insurance to help us, and also trying to get the home rebuilt, is a job. It takes up a lot of time every week going to meetings, endless email and conversations with the insurance adjuster, etc. This has really hurt our lives and it’s not even close to over.

Susanne's Story

My husband and I run a resort, Mountain Home Ranch. We had gone home for the day and had gone to bed early because it had been a really long week. We'd had a group in for the entire week. It was three meals a day and I manage all the food prep, menu planning, ordering and all of that, and I was pretty tired.

I got a call from a very dear friend and neighbor, who has a scanner. They said that it sounded like there might a fire on Mountain Home Ranch Road.  So, my husband, John, got up, and clearly there was smoke all over the place.

Casey, our son, lives over at the ranch, while we live on the adjacent property. So, we texted him saying to put all the guests on alert. So, he and the other staff took care of that, while I started prepping our own house.  My husband and I were both volunteer firefighters for many years, now semi-retired. So, we did all of the things we knew to do.

I got all of the flammables off of the deck while my husband went over to the ranch to make sure everything was being taken care of there. I jokingly say, I hold the world’s record for throwing Adirondack chairs off my deck and hitting the pond a bit away from my house — every single time. It’s absolutely amazing what adrenaline will do for you.

We had put a fire hydrant at the base of our house, so we charged one hose and that went on to our deck. We charged another hose and that went into the barn downstairs.

We had built our dream home — a five stall barn downstairs, two-bedrooms and two bathrooms upstairs. I got all of the animals in for safety.

We saw the fire hit the ridge – two ridges away. I texted Casey and said to get everyone out now. The evacuation proceeded very quickly at the ranch, and we just hunkered down at our place. Within 20 minutes of seeing that fire hit that ridge, it was on us. And we fought like hell for the next 4 hours.

I had texted my family on a group text and was giving them the updates as we were getting prepared. But then they didn’t hear from us for almost 5 hours. We just fought. I had the house inside, embers flying under the barn doors. It’s got hay down there so I’m running around after every gust, about every minute or so, putting out little sparks here and there. Going outside every five minutes and putting out little spot fires around the deck downstairs.

At one point, my husband yelled to me from upstairs “the decks on fire and I’m out of water." Fortunately, I looked up and saw where he was and said there was a cat litter box right there. I told him to grab that and throw it on the fire as I go running upstairs with two buckets of water.

Thank god we put the pond in right next to our house, because it became the bucket brigade for the next hour and half, maybe two hours –– putting out spot fires with 5-gallon buckets of water. By the way, kitty litter works really well for dousing a fire, because it’s clay. So that helps knock it down.

By the time I got up to him, we were able to get the whole rest of the deck out. At one point, the smoke got really bad downstairs in the barn. And, again, firefighter training kicks in. I needed to cover my airways, so I got a towel and covered my face, ran upstairs, got all of my big towels, soaked them and put them at the base of all of the doors. And that helped, not only to knock the smoke down but to keep the embers from coming under — because it wasn’t only me at one point, my horses were all going, “I can’t breathe” and I was thinking, I’m fighting too hard, you guys cannot die. It was just so thick, no one could breath. So, putting the towels down helped tremendously.

At various points we were trying to get out to Casey and to see how he was doing. But we didn’t hear back from him. We were just sending up prayers, “God please keep him safe." The morning started coming around. We didn’t get any sleep. It was literally like 5-minute patrols around the house after the main part of the fire storm went over. The winds were so intense we couldn’t walk into the winds, so we were having to tip toe around the house and pull ourselves around to try to get to each side to put out any little fires that came up.

During all of this we lost our barn and workshop, and my art studio — with 45 years of my art. We lost all of our solar, both hot water and electric. All gone. But we managed to save our house and all of the animals at the house. Back at the ranch, my other three equines and two goats were on their own. We found the goats the next day — a little singed, but safe. We lost all of our chickens.

Fortunately, we had just bought a Chevy Volt all electric vehicle and it was fully charged, so we were able to charge our cell phones in between trying to get some repairs done to our water system, so we could try to get water back up and running. And it also had a Wi-Fi hotspot, which helped tremendously to let people know we were alive and that we managed to at least save our house.

Another horse and two mules from our petting zoo were lost for two days. But one of the volunteer firefighters that lives at the end of our road drove up one day and said, “think we have your equines. I’d been looking for hours and hours every day trying to find them, and getting that sinking feeling that I'd lost them, too. When he came up and said, "I think I have your critters," I just burst into tears.

I knew Casey was out and safe, although with a broken ankle. I just about lost it seeing how close he came to losing his life. In the '64 fire, the family was able to shelter in place in the main lodge — a concrete building. But this fire was horizontal, with embers going 60-80 miles an hour. It just took everything in its path. Unless you were there fighting, you lost everything.

So, we lost our entire ranch. The ranch has been in my husband’s family since 1913 — some 105 years. ...  Over the last 15 years, I'd replaced pretty much all of the furniture with antiques. I’d go into the thrift stores and find beautiful dressers and armoires that needed refinishing which I could do in my barn. I almost finished all of the new chairs in the dining room. Beautiful hand carved wood pieces that I was able to find that were very close to matching throughout. I had 80 chairs in the dining room — I had replaced 60 of them and still had 20 to go. With that I also found beautiful oak round tables to replace some of the funky square plyboard ones that had been in there. I was really proud of what we managed to do. [big sigh].

I’ll tell you, doing the inventory ... we spent several days just going through room after room after room and seeing everything that we lost in the last 20 years of our work has been pretty intense. You know, I’m now dealing with four insurance companies. ... And right now, I don’t know if I’m going to get much out of them. They're just not returning emails. It’s just been a real challenge. ... Why aren’t people just helping instead of making things so freaking difficult?

After the fire and the next couple of months all of my animals took turns with different illnesses, all directly related to the fire. I have 17 animals that I’m dealing with at my home. My son is living with us and his cats came in. After the fire we ended up with some of the immediate neighbors’ animals at our place. All of the fencing had burned throughout the entire region so trying to put up make-shift fencing for 25 animals at my home ... Fortunately, after the fire, my sisters, god love them, were able to get up to us Tuesday afternoon. Even though the whole place was on lockdown for two weeks. Nobody in or out. If you left, you were not allowed back in. We didn’t dare leave because we had the 25 animals at my house, but I was also getting phone calls and emails and texts from all of the neighbors that either got totally burnt out or evacuated and couldn’t get back in, asking “can you go feed our animals?" So, between my husband and I, we were taking care of over 200 animals between Mountain Home Ranch Road to the end of Sharp Road.

Water was a major issue for us. Fortunately, the fire department on about day 5 came in and filled up our water tank. At about that time I also received my generator and the parts I needed to get my well operating, so then I had water. But trying to feed and water that many animals with no running water anywhere was a challenge.

The fire department was checking on us every day once they realized we had survived. Two days later they asked us if we could just start handling all the animal stuff, because they were just maxed out dealing with the fires. The fire kept coming back at us, and we were told to evacuate two more times in that first two weeks. CalFire would come screaming up our drive way honking the horn, “You got to get out the fire is coming back!” I’d just look at them and say, “There’s nothing left to burn around me, everything is incinerated.”  And they would look and say, “We know, we just had to come tell you.” Every firefighter that come up to check on us every day thereafter said that the hottest part of the fire screamed through our canyon and was just dumbfounded that we managed to save our house, because everything burned so thoroughly...

The more I find out about what PG&E did or did not do, the angrier I become. They *%&@ with my life and my livelihood over their bonuses and it’s unconscionable that they would do something like that to mess with people’s lives and livelihoods. People talk about the human lives lost, but no one has talked about the hundreds, if not thousands of animals of lives lost. I’ve got several friends that lost horses in this fire. One of my friends had a horse for over 27 years. It’s mind boggling that they would mess with life over money.

Oh god, I want to get this behind us. It's like I’m not seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, yet you know. I’ve taken on some pretty big projects in my lifetime. I just want to get back to my life. I was just getting ready to retire. Now, if I don’t get the money out of my insurance company and no additional money has come, I don’t know how I’m going to do that. My retirement burned to the ground.