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Thankful for Petaluma first responders

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.”

The fires destroyed more than 100,000 acres, 6,800 structures and claimed 23 lives in Sonoma County. As Petaluma’s police force mobilized nearly two dozen officers to lend a hand with law enforcement, two officers’ homes burned. Others, such as east Santa Rosa resident Lt. Tim Lyons, stayed behind to fight the fires themselves.

Lyons, who has worked in Petaluma for nearly three decades, was awoken by his teenage son early Oct. 9 as smoke choked the air and embers swirled in the darkened sky. After seeing off his dogs and his 18- and 15-year-old sons, Lyons rushed to five homes on his block to wake up neighbors.

“Me and one other neighbor decided to stay and fight the fire,” said Lyons, who has owned his home for 15 years. “We stayed and were running around setting up garden hoses and knocking down fences and cutting down tree limbs against the house. And then the fire came, and we were just putting out spot fires on one side of the street and then the other side. Once the first house started on fire, it was too overwhelming and the wind was too quick.”

Crews from San Antonio Volunteer Fire Department and Gold Ridge Fire District rolled up to help as hydrants went dry and a neighbor’s home just 100 feet behind Lyons’ residence burst into flames. Water was piped from pools, hot tubs and rain catchers in the neighborhood. All told, 12 homes remained standing, while seven others were completely destroyed, and two more were rendered uninhabitable, Lyons said.

Lyons’ home is still standing but damaged from smoke. He’s stayed to protect the neighborhood from looters and watch for spot fires.

“It’s really different — some really good neighbors are gone and have lost houses. It’s really hard. You look out the window and see two burned houses right behind you and you get reminded every day,” he said. “I’m still kind of speechless.”

Police Chief Ken Savano praised his department’s response, and the way the community rallied to help those displaced officers.

“They were incredibly strong and resilient and wanted to help fellow human beings,” he said.

Now as the blazes are tamped out and cities look to the future, Rancho Adobe’s Nappi and his family have moved to rental home in Cotati while they craft a blueprint for rebuilding their Coffey Park home. A GoFundMe page has raised more than $18,000 to help the family, who also lost more than $40,000 in inventory from Heather Nappi’s clothing business.

Though he’s working this Thanksgiving, Nappi said he has a lot to be grateful for.

“There’s a lot of good that comes out of terrible situation,” he said. “The fact that my family is safe was the only thing I really cared about.”