Two years ago, on Oct. 11, the entire town of Calistoga was evacuated under severe threat of the surrounding wildfires. It was a startling event for residents, but the town was evacuated in a more or less orderly manner with the coordination of police and fire departments.
This was three days after the start of the Tubbs fire that started in Calistoga and quickly spread to Santa Rosa, half an hour away. By then, Santa Rosa, a much bigger and spread-out city, was just beginning to quell the chaos that had ensued.
“We had the opposite. We had no official (notice or) anything. There were no sirens, we didn’t see any police or anything until day three. It was just like no man’s land,” said author and Santa Rosa resident Earick Beann. “It was almost like being in a ghost town. If you watched the news you could sort of get a sense of it. But everybody was on their own.”
Beann was at Copperfield’s Books in Calistoga Aug. 17 to sign books, tell his story, and listen to the experiences other people had during the fires. He, his wife, Laura, and their Doberman, Oscar, live in the Fountaingrove neighborhood of Santa Rosa.
In his book, “Pointe Patrol: How Nine People (and a dog) Saved Their Neighborhood From One of the Most Destructive Fires in California’s History,” Beann says on the night the fires started, he wasn’t immediately sure they should evacuate.
His neighbor “Larry” (Beann gave his neighbor’s aliases to protect their identities) was formerly with the sheriff’s department. Larry went door-to-door in the middle of the night, telling neighbors to leave the area.
“People started evacuating, but it wasn’t clear to me that he was saying to evacuate. I think I might have misunderstood him,” Beann said. “But there was a ton of smoke, that was a big clue.”
Beann and his wife did eventually evacuate for the night. While leaving, they encountered branches in the street and buildings on fire, including the iconic Round Barn at the entrance to their neighborhood, on Mendocino and Bicentennial Avenues. The entire mobile home park, called Journey’s End, was on fire, Beann said.
“I could feel the heat through my car door.”
In Coffey Park, a Santa Rosa neighborhood leveled by the fire, houses were exploding and vehicles caught fire as people tried to drive away in them.
“It was like straight out of a movie,” Beann said.
The next day, the Beanns were sure their house was burned to the ground. They had plans to leave town and head south. “The closest hotel we could find was in Berkeley,” Beann said.
They found, however, that their house did survive. But the neighborhood was not a high priority for police and firefighting officials. Petty arson in the downtown area kept firefighters in that area, Beann said he was later told.
“We were not in the place where people were dying in the moment so we were sort of ignored,” he said.
Looters and a Doberman named Oscar
In the book, Beann describes the following six days and nights as part of a small group of vigilantes protecting their neighborhood against not only the raging wildfire, but armed looters and thieves.
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One neighbor, a former firefighter, had stayed the night. The neighborhood had lost water pressure so he was filling up buckets of water from his hot tub.
There were “tons of hot spots” and flying coals “the size of dinner plates,” Beann said.
Beann’s Doberman, Oscar, “loved it. It was the greatest adventure of his life. He was like, ‘I was born for this’,” Beann said.
The first two thieves broke into a neighbor’s house and were spotted down in the wine cellar.
“They had black masks and looked like typical looters. We were all very surprised by it. But from their perspective it’s easy pickings,” Beann said.
Two of the neighbors had shovels and pretended to be police officers and chased them out.
More looters returned, in disguise, Beann said, pretending to be press or insurance adjusters.
Beann’s neighbor, the former firefighter, took to patrolling the neighborhood armed and in full combat gear. For a while Beann was armed as well.
“I didn’t sleep for three or four days. Every hour I would go all around the neighborhood with Oscar. He would growl at anybody. He would scare off all the young looters on mountain bikes and ATVs with backpacks.”
After three or four days the police came in and took over as a presence, but before that “It was like the Wild Wild West,” Beann said. “Like anything goes. We saw the best of humanity, but we also saw the worst.”
At one point, an officer stopped a young thief on a bicycle with a backpack full of cell phones.
Know thy neighbor
The Beanns and their neighbors were staked out for two straight weeks without leaving the area.
Laura was the only woman in the neighborhood group. She has a degree in community organizing and social work and started a text messaging thread that kept everyone connected.
Beann donated their picnic tables to serve as headquarters, someone else had food, and another had a generator.
“With combined forces you can sort of survive. Left to our own devices, any one of us would have been missing some critical element which would have made us have to leave,” Beann said.
Before the fires Beann said they knew their neighbors “sort of well” from attending monthly potlucks. “Now we’re all family. The neighborhood really bonded during this whole thing. You think, ‘what’s the most important thing to put in your emergency kit?’ It’s actually your neighbors.”