PETALUMA, Calif.(KTVU) - A fast moving fire, fueled by eucalyptus trees, destroyed four homes and damaged ten others in Petaluma Tuesday afternoon.
Fire crews arrived to find homes already burning on Stuart Street which runs parallel to Highway 101 northbound. Residents were in a panic.
"It was kind of scary because all the smoke made it hard to see and to breathe," fourteen year old Ashley Bosch told KTVU.
Bosch used her cell phone to shoot video of the tall trees, blazing like torches.
"Everyone was running out, and some were crying," added Bosch.
It was a chaotic scene as fire crews rushed in.
The dispatch was issued as a "vegetation" fire, because the flames were first seen on the freeway shoulder, which is just a few feet away from the homes' backyards.
Instead, crews had to swap into heavier structure fire uniforms and strap on airpacks so they could fight the fire inside, and on the roofs, of the burning homes.
Fortunately, there were no concerns of people trapped.
Petaluma Police were already on scene, and officers were making sure everyone was accounted for.
"The were evacuating people as we were pulling up," Battalion Chief Jeff Holden told KTVU, "so we got information way early, that all the houses had been cleared."
A cat was killed in one of the burning homes. One resident was evaluated for smoke inhalation, but declined to go to emergency. Another suffered burns while helping an elderly neighbor escape.
"I ran out and I was immediately stepping all over embers, there were embers everywhere," Rachal Brillhart told KTVU, describing how she jumped up from a nap, and dashed next door, in bare feet.
"Oh yeah it hurt so bad, but when there's something more important to do, the pain doesn't really matter," said Brillhart, showing her blistered feet, bandaged by paramedics.
"I busted into her house, yelling for her, because she can't hear very well," elaborated Brillhart, "and then she saw me, and I was like 'we have to go'!"
A second fire fight happened behind the houses, on the freeway shoulder between the Lakeville and Washington Street exits.
That's where it appears the fire started, then spread to a row of eucalyptus trees that create a buffer between the homes and 101.
CALFIRE sent a helitack crew that fought the flames on the ground, and dropped buckets of water on the oily, highly flammable eucalyptus.
"The trees were torching off, embers were being thrown, the wind was blowing the fire on the ground, there were several factors pushing this fire," noted Battalion Chief Holden.
For an hour, the northbound freeway was shut down by flames and smoke, which snarled the evening commute as it was beginning.
And some fire victims were still at work, and came home to find their homes in ruins.
"Those eucalyptus trees should have been cut down a long time ago," fire victim Bill Folla told KTVU, "and I talked to CALTRANS many times about trimming them, but they never would. They're roman candles and as soon as a flame gets in them, they're gone."
Folla watched as firefighters carried salvageable items from his home of 25 years, which he shared with his wife and daughter.
""Fire got into the attic and took the whole house," he said grimly, "it's pretty well shot, and what the flames didn't get, the water and smoke did."
The cause of the fire is under investigation, but given its freeway location, is presumed to be "human caused."
BC Holden says that could range from a tossed cigarette to an exhaust spark, or even a dragging chain or a flat tire, creating friction.
Tuesday evening, the red-tagged homes were being boarded-up.
Other residents had been allowed to return home, and were turning to a public Facebook group "Helping Petaluma" to coordinate donations for the families that lost everything.
Rachal Brillhart, who selflessly went to her neighbor's aid, lauded her close knit community.
"It's what you've got to do. Small town, small neighborhood, and we've all got to look out for each other."