Northern Santa Rosa residents given all-clear to return home

Evacuees were given the all-clear to return home in the Larkfield and Wikiup areas in north Santa Rosa on Sunday evening.

Authorities expect more orders will be lifted as conditions improve and gas power is restored.

But residents admit it's a bittersweet homecoming, when so much devastation exists around them.

"I'm thankful, I'm fortunate," said high school teacher Ramon Ramirez as he returned home.

He found it dusty and smelling of smoke, but wasn't complaining.
"I know people lost a lot, lost their lives, so I'm just grateful to be back, and everything's here," said Ramirez.

At a 1 p.m. briefing, fire managers also expressed a positive outlook, noting containment is growing, weather cooperating, and there are more boots on the ground.

"We're turning the corner, we're getting a lot more black lines on the maps," exclaimed CalFire Incident Commander Bret Gouvea, "so overall things are feeling very optimistic for us."

Less than a mile from the newly repopulated neighborhoods, is the devastated Larkfield Estates.
"I hope that everybody will have the strength to rebuild and get through the hard part and look to the spring, " said burned-out resident Gena Jacob, as she picked through the ruins of her property. 

Jacob had been in the home for 18 years, and just sent her daughter off to college.

She was startled into tears upon finding three ceramic mushrooms her daughter made, and painted, somehow unscathed by the fire

"They are three 'shrooms, because we are a family of three," said Jacob, snatching them off the ground.
"If that's the only thing that I can give my daughter, then that will be the best memory that I can give her because I don't have anything else to give her," she said emotionally.

Jacob's next-door neighbor happens to be the Santa Rosa fire official who gave Santa Rosa's evacuation order.

"I said the Tubbs Fire is here and it's going to get into the city," recalled Assistant Fire Marshal Paul Lowenthal, as he picked through the rubble of the home he bought just over a year ago.

On that Sunday night, as winds howled and Santa Rosa fire crews fought several structure fires, Lowenthal was notified of a wildland fire burning west from Napa County.

He had few details, and as soon as he could get free from the working fires, he drove into the hills on Mark West Springs Road.

What he saw stunned him and he immediately notified Santa Rosa law enforcement to evacuate households all the way to Mendocino Avenue, which parallels Highway 101.

"There was a part of me that wondered if I was over-reacting, and this was the right call, but my gut told me this isn't going to stop and we need to get people out of here."

His intuition saved lives, as the fire roared over the hills and into flatland neighborhoods, even jumping the freeway.

Lowenthal helped evacuate people for hours, and only learned later his neighborhood was gone.
"After day three when I realized the uniform I had on was my only uniform, in fact the only thing I had, then it really started to set in," he said wryly.

Most important: his nine year old daughter was away from home that night.

"She left here, happy, and has good memories of this place, and that to me is the most important thing," smiled Lowenthal.  

So even as lights go back on in some places, other neighborhoods will remain dark and deserted, awaiting rebuild.

"Normal is not a term I would use," said Ramirez, on his return home.

"It's going to be a healing process and we're going to have to come together as a community and help others through this."