A Look Back 1 Year Later: Firefighters save seniors in Santa Rosa

The Tubbs Fire exploded on a Sunday night, October 8th. By early Monday morning, the firestorm's front and its hurricane force winds blew into the Fountain Grove area of Santa Rosa.

Perched on top of a hill along Round Barn Boulevard is the Solstice Senior Living. Solstice is an independent living community home to about 120 senior citizens who awoke from their sleep to the sound of fire alarms and to smell of smoke.

Resident Candy Butwill had recently moved in. "That was a very scary situation," said Butwill, "Because between the fire and heavy smoke, it was thicker than fog."

A crew of firefighters positioned about a mile away heard on call on their radios about the fire coming quickly approaching Soltice Senior Living, and that help was needed. Nine firefighters representing Santa Rosa Fire, Graton Fire and Healdsburg Fire jumped into their three engines and headed to Solstice. Once they arrived on scene, they realized so too had the Tubbs Fire. 

"The wind was so strong actually at one point it blew me over," said David Levin a volunteer firefighter with Graton Fire. "By the time we were in place the fire was impacting us, and the building. I was probably 30 to 40 feet from Captain Lee and his crew, and I couldn't see him because of the smoke and fire."

"I recall diving to the ground grabbing nozzle and opening up a fog stream," said Keenan Lee a Captain with the Santa Rosa Fire Department. Lee said all the firefighters pulled lines, surrounded the structure and told the residents to shelter in place. 

At one point Lee said he did feel slightly overmatched by the fire. "In the fire department they say risk little save little. Well this was a situation we risked a lot to save a lot." 

Levin also said there were moments his crew could only protect themselves, "All we had was a three four hose lines and the amount of fire impacting us was incredible, and I told my crew we need to stay behind shelter and defend what we can."

After the front hit, the firefighters, who had never worked together before this night, realized the fire made it into the kitchen area through a window. The two men and their crews ran inside and worked to knock the flames down, and cut holes in the ceiling for ventilation. They knew if they didn't the flames would have spread to the living spaces. "And even if the residents that we had sheltered in placed weren't directly impacted by flames," said Capt. Lee, "The smoke conditions would have caused a lot of fatalities."

On that night at the Solstice Senior Living Community there were no known fatalities, but the residents say there was plenty of heroism. Three engines, nine firefighters, all locked in and ready to fight.

David Levin says he will always appreciate Captain Lee and his leadership. "There's a term we use when we talk about people in the fire service, we say these people are dialed and that's what I'd call Capt. Kennan Lee, he's dialed. Happy to have him on our side."

And Capt. Lee says he felt the same way. "I felt like the whole time we were on the same page, I'm very grateful for him and his crew, my crew and the Healdsburg crew. Everybody performed at a high level the entire time."