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The Fire This Time

The Fire This Time

By Kerry Benefield

Photography by Guy Wathen/San Francisco Chronicle/Polaris
After the most destructive fires in California history, how do you grapple with all that’s lost? And how do you help others put their lives back together?

IN THOSE CHAOTIC and terrifying early-morning hours in October, as wildfires propelled by fierce Diablo winds whipped through Sonoma and Napa counties, Graham Rutherford ’81 and Katie Bipes ’17 watched helplessly from afar. News updates and social media posts showed pictures of places familiar and treasured now ablaze—or already gone.

When it was over, the wildfires would become the costliest in U.S. history. More than 6,100 homes were destroyed and 40 people were killed. The fires were propelled with such ferocity—roaring 50 feet high over ridgelines, or their embers carried a mile ahead of the flames to start new fires—that sometimes people were awoken from sleep in the middle of the night with only minutes to escape. Sometimes they had no time at all.

Rutherford, the longtime principal at Cardinal Newman High School on Santa Rosa’s Old Redwood Highway, just east of Highway 101, was staying at Lake Tahoe that weekend with his wife, Lyn. He had turned his cell phone to silent overnight. When one of the couple’s sons got through to Lyn’s phone in the early morning hours of October 9, Rutherford finally looked at his own. It was exploding with messages: Cardinal Newman was on fire.

For Bipes, the realization was eerily similar.

“My friend texted me at 5 a.m. and I woke up to that text,” Bipes said. “She said Santa Rosa was on fire and everyone was evacuating.”

From her home in San Jose, she called her parents. They had evacuated their home in Santa Rosa’s Coey Park neighborhood around 1:30 a.m. after a neighbor pounded on their door and warned of the approaching flames. She didn’t know it as she spoke with her parents, but at that hour her childhood home was already gone. A couple miles away, her high school alma mater was on fire, too; she graduated from Cardinal Newman in 2013.

Fear reigned for nearly a week in Santa Rosa. Evacuations were ordered and were lifted. Roads were closed. Roads that were open were jammed first with firefighting crews from around the state and later, the National Guard. Helicopters and airplanes, some carrying fire retardant, dotted the sky. But the damage inflicted by the deadly Tubbs fire, which began near Calistoga and swept down canyons into the city of Santa Rosa itself, was largely done before most people were awake the morning of Monday, October 9.

Graham Rutherford graduated from Cardinal Newman in 1977. He has been principal for 14 years and a teacher there for 35. An ex-football and baseball letterman with the asymmetrical fingers to prove it, the bespectacled Rutherford is omnipresent at all events Cardinal Newman.

With ties so deep, Rutherford, perhaps more than anyone at the school, was forced to balance the pain of the destruction with the need of the school community to move forward. He makes dark jokes about his own loss but strikes a different tone when talking about the future of the school and the commitment he made to bringing students back as soon as possible. He calls it a promise.

In the early hours of October 9, he saw images of Willi’s Wine Bar, directly across the street from campus, leveled by flames. Then he saw pictures of sections of the school alight. He feared the entire campus was gone.

“Seeing Willi’s at 3 a.m.? That was like ‘We are in trouble,’” he said. “That is just too close.”

It was Tuesday before he could reach campus. He gained access on closed roads thanks to a Cardinal Newman coach who is also an employee of a utility company. With a white mask covering his mustache and much of his face, he walked the campus and viewed the scene from the roof of buildings still standing.

“I was stunned by how burnt down it was,” he says. “But I was expecting it to be worse.”

Gone was the administration building, including Rutherford’s personal office. Gone was the library and significant pieces of school history. Gone were 20 classrooms. Four more classrooms were damaged beyond the point of being usable.

And as Rutherford tried to assess the damage to the campus that first opened to students in 1965, the grim tally of Cardinal Newman students who lost their homes continued to rise. In the end, 110 students—about a sixth of Cardinal Newman’s student body—lost not only a significant portion of their school but their home as well.

Coffey Park was a close-knit neighborhood. Hundreds of homes burned in just a few hours. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Bipes, who studied civil engineering at SCU and now works in construction management, has known no other family home than the house on Randon Way. Her parents moved into the two-story house on the cul-de-sac in Coffey Park before she was born.

Coffey Park is a collection of one- and two-story homes nestled west of Highway 101 and east of the tracks that today carry daily SMART trains. It suffered the most concentrated destruction from the wind-whipped fires that jumped six lanes of freeway in the middle of the night. Spot fires torched buildings west of the highway, but when the flames reached homes west of Coey Lane, entire neighborhoods—more than 1,300 homes—were razed in hours.

But Bipes knew none of this when she talked to her parents early Monday morning.

A two-sport athlete at Cardinal Newman who played three years on Santa Clara’s nationally ranked club lacrosse team, Bipes wanted to return to Santa Rosa as soon as possible. But between her parents’ concern for her safety and prohibitions against entering burn zones, Bipes wasn’t able to return to her hometown for two weeks. When she did, what she found was shocking. She had been glued to the news, had seen all of the images, even drone footage of places she was intimately familiar with. But driving in her parents’ car past burned ruins of entire neighborhoods was unnerving.

And then they drove into Coffey Park and down Randon Way.

“Before I knew it, we were driving by and there it was, completely burned down,” she says of her family home. “It really did look like a war zone. There is nothing there.”

For Rutherford, taking stock of the personal loss of his office gave him perspective on how to help so many Cardinal Newman families who were left homeless by the fires.

His father’s veteran’s flag. His grandfather’s diploma from the University of California at Berkeley. His own diploma from Santa Clara. His senior year football jersey. His Cardinal Newman letterman jacket. All gone. “

It was the stuff you tend to gather in life,” he says.

The place these objects inhabited in his daily life was what gave them meaning. The mementos started conversations with visitors, sparked memories, and brought him peace.

“I’m going to miss the reflection that that office provided,” he says. “I could push my chair back, I would feel calm as my eyes wandered around. It was the stuff that helped me remember things and reminded me of what I have learned,” he says. “I’m going to have to count on my memory to help me now.”

His bookshelves were crammed with old texts from his days as a student, and with photos and trinkets. His desk, which appeared a study in disarray to the casual observer, was a serviceable mess. At one end sat a 1930s-era Corona manual typewriter with one sheet of paper on the roller. On it were messages from his sons Edward and Giles, sometimes just a word or a short line. Though Edward graduated from Cardinal Newman in 2010 and Giles graduated five years later, that paper was still in Rutherford’s old Corona. “If I wasn’t there, they could leave me a message, just between us.”

A few years ago, Katie Bipes moved out of her family home. Her older sister had already left the nest. But Bipes’ parents remained reluctant to downsize and move elsewhere. They loved—and love—the Coffey Park neighborhood. Their friends were there. A lifetime of memories inhabited that house on Randon Way.

The Bipes family had hosted houseguests just before the fire. In preparation for the guests, Katie’s parents had asked her to move many of her things to her own new place in San Jose. Consider it a fortuitous circumstance.

“I took almost everything out of my room,” she says. “But I still left my yearbooks and my bookshelves and some smaller things, a lot of artwork.”

When the Bipeses left Coffey Park in a rush early that Monday morning, they carried very few belongings with them.

“They honestly felt that they would come back to the house,” Katie says. “We really thought our house would be OK.”

Randon Way is a two-block street that runs north/south alongside the railroad tracks to the west, the border of Coffey Park. The Bipes home—sitting on the eastern flank of Randon Way—marks the final reach of that finger of the fire. A stone’s throw to the north, homes stretch for blocks, untouched by the tragedy.

What was lost for the Bipeses were the collective family things: Christmas ornaments, childhood toys Katie’s mother was saving for grandkids someday, her mother’s wedding dress, some important jewelry.

“All the memories, too,” Katie says.

After the fire, Katie made trips up to Santa Rosa to help her parents sift through the ashes. That was a painful ordeal—and largely fruitless. Still, there was this: a ring that had belonged to her grandfather.

“My dad really wanted to find it,” she says. “On his third or fourth time, he actually found the ring. It was pretty burned and you couldn’t really tell what it was. But he was able to find it.”

His mother's cups: Brian Gilman went through the rubble of his mother's house in Santa Rosa and was able to recover only these antique family treasures. Photo by Guy Wathen/San Francisco Chronicle/Polaris

Rutherford says his personal loss has made him a better leader to help those coping with tragedy. He knows, in some small way, what so many of his students are going through.

“The burning down of my office gave me a taste of what it might be like for someone to lose a home,” he says. “It helps me understand.”

The rebuilding also helps.

Cardinal Newman staff and students had to endure temporary quarters for the school for months. There were contractors to hire, designs to pick, insurance issues to grapple with.

Students were separated from one another. For months, seniors met for class in the town of Cotati, about 13 miles south on Highway 101. Juniors were taught in Rohnert Park, next door. Sophomores were up in Windsor, six miles north of the Cardinal Newman campus. And freshmen were in Santa Rosa.

Students returned to campus on January 22. They found a school, like town itself, starkly different.

Homes on the eastern flank of the school are gone. One finger of the Tubbs fire came roaring down Mark West Springs Road, just above the school. The neighborhood street that marked the northern boundary of campus—razed.

“It feels like a graveyard,” Rutherford says. “The chimneys are like tombstones.”

But Cardinal Newman is not entirely alone. Alongside the campus, St. Rose Catholic School, where kids from kindergarten to the eighth grade study, is open once more.

Still, Rutherford says, “It’s odd for us and St. Rose to be the only people in the neighborhood. Where did our neighborhood go?”

Standing at the front of the school where chain link fence demarcates yet another area of construction, Rutherford strikes a hopeful, but realistic, tone.

“We are a long way from where we want to be,” he says.

But seeing kids on campus again is heartening.

“We are keeping a promise made,” he says.

While Rutherford recognizes that he’ll have to count on his memory rather than mementos in his new office to summon connections with the past, he will have a few things on display that survived the fire: two tea cups from China, a piece of granite etched with a Scottish thistle, and a mug given to him at the start of the school year by Cardinal Newman teacher John Contreras. On it is the inscription Don’t sweat the small stuff.

“That is the message that survived,” Rutherford says.

KERRY BENEFIELD writes for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. She, too, lost her childhood home in the Tubbs fire.

 

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