Exiting U.S. Highway 101 North to get to Coffey Park, the signs of devastation are already obvious from the freeway. Row after row of scorched fields, trees and the occasional sign-post were destroyed in the fires locals say jumped the freeway and engulfed entire neighborhoods within seconds Sunday night.
California Highway Patrol vehicles guard the entrance to the now burned-out neighborhood, and officers point to the “Road Closed” sign when cars approach. NBC Bay Area was able to show press credentials to get in, but officials reminded the crew of a curfew (Santa Rosa officials decided to impose a curfew to prevent looting and officials say that has helped so far).
The first thing that hits you when approaching Coffey Park is the smell —burned, almost charred earth, metal, grass, plastic, all blended together. It looks like something out of a movie set — “Apocalypse Now” or “War of the Worlds,”— except it’s not. All that's visible is pure destruction; the fire burned everything down. People’s homes, cars and belongings are now lost in the ashes forever.
More than 1,100 home were destroyed the night the fire swallowed Coffey Park, a square-mile of middle-class homes and friendly neighbors in Santa Rosa, which was one of the hardest hit in the wildfires. Thirty-thousand people evacuated and a day later all that was left was dust. Broken glass from windows line the street; molten plastic trash cans spill over on the sidewalk.
Besides patrol cars, the first sign of life days after the whole place burned down was a couple walking their dog through the lifeless streets.
“It looks like a war zone, doesn’t it?” they say.
“We’re one of the houses that survived,” the couple, who identified themselves as Jayme and Nancy Bollinger, said. “You look at this devastation, and you feel survivor’s guilt.”
The Bollingers said they woke up to the sound of bullhorns and drove straight to the airport.
“We left with just our dog, we didn’t even take any clothes,” said. “The wind was just horrendous, it was blowing so hard.”
After spending the night at the airport with dozens of other evacuees, they drove back Monday morning. They have no power, and are boiling their water for safety.
“We don’t even recognize some of the streets,” Jayme Bollinger said. “This is Hopper, and down there is Mocha and Brandy. We are right there in the last 20 or 30 houses. The firemen did a great, great job. They saved our houses. Someday hopefully we will be able to pay them back.”
The night of Oct. 8 was nothing short of a nightmare, they said.
“You would never think this would happen here,” Jayme Bollinger said. “I was talking to the firemen and they said that the fire just came through the green lawns and the drought resistant plants and the concrete like a monster. It’s evil at its worst.”
Nobody knew where to go, it was just chaos, Nancy Bollinger said.
“When we did get to an intersection, the officer was just waving cars through," she said. "When we asked, which way do we go, he said, ‘I don’t care, just get out.’”
A few blocks down were Hugo and Patty Aguirre, whose house also survived the wildfire.
“It looks like a nuclear explosion … Everything is ash,” Hugo Aguirre said. “If you look at pictures of Hiroshima and you look at this, it’s identical.”
A beautiful little park and picnic tables are now decimated to dust. All that’s left is metal and stone. Aluminum from burned car rims streak the sidewalk like some alien life form, glinting in the evening sun.
“It was a very nice, middle-class neighborhood. The area where we live was 18 to 20 years old,” Hugo Aguirre said.
He pointed to a lot that used to be a house, but is now reduced to rubble, garage doors twisted into a heap.
“This was one of my best friend’s houses right here," he said. "He was an artist and he lost all his equipment. Him and his wife made glass and wood art.”
Something that resembles a kiln sticks out from the dust.
“He had two beautiful bicycles – avid cyclist. He ran out with just what he was wearing,” Patty Aguirre said. “He was helping his neighbor, and he looked over, and his backyard was on fire. By the time he got to his car, his roof was on fire.”
The Aguirres spent the whole night by the airport as well.
“They were knocking on our doors – we were standing on the street at 1:30 in the morning, and all of a sudden we saw embers go over our roof, and we knew that was it … It’s time to go,” Hugo Aguirre said. “We had two cats, we only found one, so we left with one. When we came back after the fire, and everything was done, (the second cat) actually made it through the fire.”
When they came back the next morning around 7 a.m., the firefighters were trying to save their house. “We couldn’t believe our house was still standing,” Patty Aguirre said.
Firefighters had to sacrifice the house next door to save the Aguirre’s house. “Two-thirds of the house was already destroyed, so they cut part of the house out,” Hugo Aguirre said. “Monday evening at around 9 until 4 or 5:30 a.m. in the morning, it was still flaming. Every hour I would get up and just hose it down.”
The firemen came by every hour to check on them, they said.
"We would be out here, and our neighbor behind was out here putting flames out," Patty Aguirre said. "All we got was a bit of charred grass, and a busted wall.”
The house next door was still smoking for days until the fire was completely out. “This was a house of a good friend, and it’s completely gone,” said Hugo Aguirre. “It’s bitter-sweet, you feel glad your house survived, but then you feel so much emotion for all your friends. This is a very close-knit community. We all know each other, we all cover each other’s houses when they were around. We probably are never going to see our neighbors again.
“Yeah it’s interesting, a lot of them said they are not coming back.” Patty Aguirre said. "It’s just too much.”
The Aguirres said most of the houses on their block went for $600,000 to $700,000. About 40 to 80 houses might have survived, they said, but there’s no official count yet.
Some of the firemen the Aguirres talked to said that five to six houses would be engulfed in flames at the same time. “And they would just go up in flames in 15 to 20 minutes – poof – the wind was so strong,” Patty Aguirre said.
Residents are worried about what impact the wildfires will have on the region's tourism industry. One of the area’s main hotels, The Hilton Sonoma, was grazed to the ground.
“You have to be here to realize the full scope of how bad it is,” Hugo Aguirre said.
The Aguirres, who’ve lived in Coffey Park for 20 years, were planning to sell their house and move to Oregon next year.
“But now we have no equity … We don’t know where to go.” Hugo Aguirre said.
Several of the Aguirre’s friends and neighbors won’t be coming back.
“Some of them lost everything … It’s surreal,” he said. “The worst part is every morning you wake up to this. It’s going to take years to rebuild. And I don’t know if I can live years looking at this every morning.”