As flames tore up a hillside on Pressley Road at 3 a.m. Oct. 9, Rancho Adobe Fire Protection District Engineer Robert Nappi frantically knocked on the door of a home in the fire’s path to rescue sleeping residents.
After precious minutes passed with no answer, Nappi and Battalion Chief Herb Wandel kicked down the door to find the five slumbering occupants were deaf. They used limited means of communication to usher four residents to safety before taking a 90-year-old hearing-impaired woman and her dog in their engine as they sped through the firestorm to evacuate nearly 40 others.
Nappi had been called into the district’s Penngrove headquarters just hours before, leaving his wife of six years, Heather, and 2-year-old daughter, Harper, at their Coffey Park home. Nappi and his wife kept in contact through the night as she evacuated with their daughter, grabbing only a diaper bag, purse, the cat and some clothes.
“As far as I knew, everything was fine,” he said. “I knew my family was fine and my house – I didn’t even think about it being affected.”
It would be hours before Nappi learned his own home was devoured by one of the very fires he was battling.
“Obviously, I’ve talked to a lot of people over the years with their home or their property unfortunately involved in a fire and severely burned to the point they have to take it out and rebuild. I’ve always talked to those people and said ‘I’m so sorry for your loss,’” the 35-year-old said. “I’m usually the one to say that and ask what we can do to help … then all of a sudden, it gets flipped back on me.”
Friday, he surveyed the ruination in his deserted neighborhood, gazing across the alien landscape that was devoid of life save for workers in hazardous material suits. As he walked through the damp ashes of what used to be his kitchen, his black sneakers quickly caked with gray cinders.
Though he lamented the loss of treasures, such as the diamond from his wife’s wedding ring, Nappi smiled as he discovered that a crudely-fashioned green clay mug he’d made in preschool survived the fires. He gestured to a Buddha statute that made it through the onslaught of flames, which he’d perched on the burned out foundation.
“This is it,” he said, looking at the skeletal remains of fence posts and mangled piles of glass from melted appliances. “This is all that’s left.”
Nappi was one of several Petaluma first responders who lost everything to the fire.
Battalion Chief Mike Weihman, a 29-year Rancho Adobe Fire veteran, and his wife were evacuated from their own house near Sonoma Mountain for a week. He stayed overnight at the department for several days, distraught over the fate of his own home while directing fire response efforts.
“It was a big source of stress, not only for me, but for a bunch of the other guys who were personally threatened,” he said. “For the first few days, I wasn’t able to go home.”
Still, crews battled on, faced with what would turn into some of the most devastating wildfires in U.S. history.
“People understood at the time it was a historical event,” he said. “People really stepped up.”