New fire station destroyed in Calif. wildfire

The station, opened only two years ago, was designed to improve the department’s ability to respond to fire and medical calls in the area

By Martin Espinoza and Kevin McCallum
The Press Democrat

SANTA ROSA — Mariana Eakle, 11, woke to the smell of smoke seeping into her Fountaingrove house on Park Gardens Drive and alerted her parents, Lori Barekman and Wade Eakle, about 1:45 a.m.

“We could see so much smoke and all the reflections of the fire from our back deck,” Barekman said.

After conferring with neighbors, Barekman and her family decided to flee. All of her neighbors left, too.

“No one that I know of stayed,” she said. “We were on the top and it was coming toward you. All of our neighbors are out. … The main thing is we’re all safe. We’re all good.”

Fire from the glow she saw from her deck would soon reach the Fountaingrove area, bringing unimaginable destruction to the upscale hillside neighborhood.

While the toll of the firestorm has not yet been tallied, the damage is widespread. Flames leveled block after block of homes in Fountaingrove and destroyed or damaged several prominent businesses, including the Fountaingrove Inn, its Equus restaurant and several structures at the Hilton Sonoma Wine Country.

For Tracy Weitzenberg, a peaceful Sunday evening spiraled into a sleepless, nightmarish night that would end with her beloved Fountaingrove home in ashes.

Weitzenberg and her husband, Todd, a physician at Kaiser Permanente, had lived there for 15 years and just sent their youngest son off to college at UC Davis. They got two weeks as empty-nesters.

“Now I have a real empty nest,” Weitzenberg said, a moment of levity at the end of a day of both strength and desperation.

She first caught the scent of smoke in the air when she went out on her deck around 10:20 p.m. but didn’t think much of it, believing it was from a distant Napa County fire. But around 11:30 p.m. they got a call from friends who were evacuating from their home off Porter Creek Road and urged them to do the same.

Her husband started packing furiously, but Weitzenberg remained less concerned, she said.

“I have a pretty positive attitude, so I still wasn’t thinking it was going to happen to my house,” said Weitzenberg, director of public policy for the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber.

But when the power went out and she went to charge her cellphone in her car, Weitzenberg saw her Southridge Drive neighbors gathered in the street looking with concern at a sky glowing ominously. Her younger brother, who lives higher up on Fountaingrove, said he could see the fire approaching.

Worried they could be trapped in their hillside cul-de-sac, the couple scooped up their dogs, Trix and Puka, and went to help their parents evacuate from their homes in the nearby Hidden Valley neighborhood. They made their way down to her father’s law firm, Abbey, Weitzenberg, Warren & Emery, where they huddled in a conference room around 4 a.m. and spent much of the day.

Though she was still optimistic that somehow her home survived, every new bit of information — the loss of a new fire station up the hill, the destruction of the shopping center near her home housing Sweet T’s — seemed to confirm her worst fears.

Then a friend of one of her sons swung by the street and sent a picture of what little was left. In one photo she could see the basketball hoop where her sons, who both played the game in high school, spent so many hours enjoying the only home they’d ever known. Then it hit her.

“It just dropped me,” Weitzenberg said. “We just cried together on the phone. For the boys, being so far away, they just can’t understand how this could possibly happen.”

Santa Rosa’s eastern hills, including the Fountaingrove, Alta Vista, Montecito Heights, Hidden Valley and Brush Creek neighborhoods, have all long concerned local officials and firefighters.

They’re located in what firefighters call a wildland-urban interface, where homes in wooded rural and semi-rural areas are effectively surrounded by highly combustible fuels.

Former Santa Rosa Mayor John Sawyer was a young boy the last time Fountaingrove burned this badly. It was Sept. 19, 1964, and the Hanley fire, started by a deer hunter who flicked his cigarette behind a roadside tavern near Mt. St. Helena, raced over Santa Rosa’s eastern hills.

“I remember there was a great deal of anxiety as the glowing got closer and closer,” Sawyer said.

The fire was ultimately stopped within yards of the former county hospital on Chanate Road, but not before scorching 52,700 acres.

“Ever since then people have been talking about how that area was due for another pretty large fire,” Sawyer said. “This is to me a major wakeup call on a number of levels.”

High up on a hill bounded by Bicentennial Way, Mendocino Avenue and Lake Park Court, a group of local residents worked tirelessly to keep flames and smoldering embers from climbing up the southeast slope and destroying a handful of homes.

Lake Park Court resident Jim Henderson said his father built one of the threatened homes in 1964, a few months before the Hanly fire.

“It was a fire just like this, burned all the way from Calistoga to Santa Rosa and it was the exact same time of year,” he said.

Across the street, residents of the Overlook at Fountaingrove apartment complex watched their homes burn Monday morning. Thick smoke clouded the apartments, which seemed to defy the flames until one building, on the southeast corner, caught fire in the rear. By about 10:45 a.m., flames and smoke were soon billowing from the roof of the structure as tearful residents looked on in horror, standing in the parking lot of the adjacent Lucky supermarket and Home Depot.

Near the top of the hill, at the intersection of Fountaingrove Parkway and Newgate Court, fire destroyed the city’s $4 million fire station, Station 5. The station, opened only two years ago, was designed to improve the department’s ability to respond to fire and medical calls in the area. But it was no match for Monday’s fire. Before 6 a.m., portions of the fire station’s front wall were collapsing.


Newgate and Wedgewood where the fire station used to stand in Fountaingrove.

Posted by Press Democrat on Tuesday, October 10, 2017


The fire destroyed four Fountaingrove homes belonging to family of the late Gene Crozat, founder of Santa Rosa-based G&C Auto Body. That included sons Patrick and Josh and daughter Jamie Crozat-Keck, as well as their mother Teri Crozat, who recently purchased a home in Fountaingrove to be near her children and grandchildren but had yet to move into it.

Tara Crozat, who is married to Patrick Crozat, said all the siblings were traveling in North Carolina when they got a call at about 1 a.m. informing them about the fire.

Tara Crozat, who spoke by cellphone just before boarding a plane to Oakland from Dallas, said the family has since confirmed via TV news video that their homes have been destroyed. The family still doesn’t know about the home of a fourth sibling, Shawn Crozat, who lives off Brush Creek.

“We just kept hoping it was a bad dream, that we were going to wake up and it’s not real,” said Tara Crozat. “We’re just kind of in a state of shock.”

Copyright 2016 The Press Democrat

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