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East Petaluma neighborhood rises from ashes


It was a hot dry day at the tail end of a particularly dry summer in the middle of a historic drought. Maria Gonzalez was at work as a housekeeper that day, Sept. 27, 2016, a Tuesday, when her husband called.

The backyard of their Stuart Drive home, where she had planted a verdant succulent garden, was engulfed in flames, and her husband, Jose Romo, was using a garden hose to protect the house that they have owned for five years.

Gonzalez hurried home and watched as firefighters battled the blaze now consuming the entire east Petaluma neighborhood. When the ash had settled, a total of 14 homes had been burned, four completely destroyed, in one of the largest urban fires in recent memory in Petaluma.

A year later, Gonzalez said she is still haggling with an insurance company over the claim as her family continues to rebuild from the fire.

“It’s scary to think that you can come home from work and find this,” she said through a translator. “We were lucky. We didn’t have that much damage. I feel bad for my neighbors to see what happened to them.”

Fire investigators determined that the conflagration started just after 3 p.m., when a motorist tossed a cigarette butt from a car on Highway 101, which is just feet from the fence line of the Stuart Drive homes. The embers quickly caught the arid underbrush at the base of a row of stately eucalyptus trees, which had ironically been planted to protect the homes from the freeway.

Soon the giant trees were in flames and strong winds quickly spread the fire through the back of the neighborhood. Petaluma Fire Chief Leonard Thompson, who was on scene at the incident, said the winds made battling the blaze that much harder.

“Those kinds of fires are very challenging,” he said. “Access is tough. There was a lot of wind behind it. We had multiple houses going at the same time.”

Thompson praised the countywide system of mutual aid — personnel from 16 fire agencies responded, including a CalFire wild land response team with a helicopter dropping water from the pond at Lucchesi Park. The fire did an estimated $1.5 million in damage and, although no one was seriously hurt, two people were treated for minor burns.

Thompson credited his staff and the firefighters from neighboring agencies with saving lives and as much property as possible. He said the fire offered a good opportunity to learn lessons and gain experience fighting a blaze that contained elements of a wild land fire and a structure fire.

“Our guys did an excellent job of containing the fire,” he said. “If we learned anything, it was that when you have high winds, you have to be aware of that and patrol the area looking to see if fire is spotted ahead” of the main fire.

The fire left a visible gash through the heart of Petaluma. Motorists passing through the city on Highway 101 can clearly see the damage, even a year later. Caltrans removed the charred eucalyptus trees, leaving the Stuart Drive neighborhood exposed to the freeway.

Transportation officials had discussed expediting a sound wall project to provide some privacy for the residents, although now that officials have identified a funding source to widen the freeway through Petaluma, it appears the sound walls will be included in that project.

Still, Kathy Miller, a Petaluma city councilwoman and member of the Sonoma County Transportation Authority, said the sound walls should be the first part of the widening project.

“The first thing we should do is put those sound walls in,” she said.

For Gonzalez, sound walls would provide a modicum of relief from the incessant drone of passing freeway traffic. More pressing, though, is the task of repairing the roof of her home and rebuilding a backyard shed that was destroyed in the fire. Overall, she said she had $17,000 in damage. Others on the street lost entire homes that are still uninhabitable a year later.

Last week, Stuart Drive was abuzz with construction work, almost as if it were the site of a new housing development. Contractors worked on several homes on the block, installing heating systems, replacing windows, hammering siding panels.

At Gonzalez’s house, her son, Juan Romo Gonzalez worked on replacing the roofing shingles. His parents stayed at his house briefly after the fire, when their home was unlivable.

He said the community rallied in the aftermath of the fire, donating money on crowd funding websites, and providing meals and clothes to the residents who lost property.

“We have such a good community,” he said. “A lot of people came over. Whatever we needed, they offered.”

(Contact Matt Brown at matt.brown@arguscourier.com.)