Hell to me isn't flames. Hell to me is dark and cold. The light of the Savior is warmth, pure and positive. The light I saw Monday morning, I didn't feel much spirit in that light .... That was the light and heat of destruction. —Jack Reisner
SANTA ROSA, Calif. — He was hosing down the back of his house when intense heat on Bishop Allan Darrimon's back made him spin around.
What he saw shocked and scared the 63-year-old retired parks and grounds manager.
"It was a swirling mass of embers and leaves and tree debris," he said. "It was 20-feet tall, and it was powering through the street behind our house. When I turned around and saw that coming down the boulevard, I really thought that was going to be it. I quickly got in the house because I wanted to get Veronica in the car and get out of there."
A few houses down, Jack Reisner, a member of the Peterson Lane Ward, an LDS Church congregation led by Darrimon, saw the same devilish beast seething across the sound wall behind their homes.
"Flames and embers were blowing over the wall, like when you throw a rock in the fire, except it was constant," said Reisner, a 59-year-old union carpenter. "Then it intensified, like this swirling wind was lobbing lit chunks of shrapnel over the wall and onto our backyard, lighting trees on fire."
Someone later asked Reisner who told him to evacuate, because the county and city never did. His answer was simple.
"The fire did."
The Tubbs Fire raced out of the mountains and into the Coffey Park suburb of Santa Rosa in the middle of the night. The 70 mph Diablo winds at its back whipped it into a firestorm, carrying large flaming embers from tree to tree and house to house, across and down streets. With calamitous velocity, it consumed 1,300 homes in Coffey Park.
Six days later, those who had homes there still aren't allowed to return and sift through the ashes. They are people living with loss, with evolving, confusing emotions, and with questions they'd never considered:
What is a hero? What exactly qualifies as saving a life? What is the true value of possessions? If you've lost your home, as 10 percent of Sonoma County has, and everything in it, how do you describe yourself? Are you homeless or houseless? Displaced or dispossessed? A victim or a survivor?
Darrimon has had a week to reflect on what he saw. He is haunted.
"The hard part is understanding that fire is alive," he said. "Not just alive. It's one thing to see the results of a fire, because I've been through that before with the Oakland fire.
"It's quite another thing to be hunted. That's what it's like. It's like being hunted. Seeing the fire come down that boulevard is something I will never forget."
Hemlock Street became ground zero in the first hours of Monday morning.
Janet Reisner was having trouble sleeping. Smoke activated asthma in the Santa Rosa city parking supervisor. Reassured by online reports that the smoke was from far-off fires, she finally fell asleep after midnight.
She startled awake a little after 1 a.m. It took the racket from 50 mph winds that pummeled the dog door that the Reisners' dachshund and bichon frise use to get in and out of the house.
"The doggy door was going, 'flop, flop, flop, flop, flop,' furiously fast," she said.
Her daughter Jessica was texting her frantically.
"Are you guys OK?"
Similar scenes repeated each day this week, including Saturday, when officials issued mandatory evacuation orders at 3:30 a.m. and 5:30 a.m. Among the fresh evacuees was President Gary Kitchen, the leader of the Santa Rosa Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He had fled the Tubbs Fire on Monday. On Saturday, the Nuns Fire took its turn threatening his home.
More than 50 members of the stake have lost homes, Kitchen said.
The hardest hit area was within Darrimon's Peterson Lane congregation, where 15 Mormon families lost homes. Jack Reisner is the ward's Primary chorister.
Janet woke Jack after hearing the doggy door and reading their daughter's text. But no sirens sounded and no warnings came from Sonoma County or Santa Rosa City. The Reisners left to check on her mother, but Coffey Park was quiet. They returned home, still feeling safe.
The Darrimons also diligently sought information before going to bed Sunday night. Finding nothing to worry or warn them, they went to sleep.
A phone call woke them.
"You have to evacuate now. There's fire all around you," said Gayle Heinbaugh, the Peterson Lane Ward Relief Society president. "It's hopped the freeway and it's heading your way."
By now, Jack Reisner was worried, too.
"It was the middle of the night, but it felt as hot as if I were standing in the sun in the middle of a hot day," he said. "I was standing in the swirling wind. It was like 'The Ten Commandments' movie. I know now what the children of Israel and the armies of Pharaoh saw. I understand the pillar of fire now.
"It was here."
At the same time Heinbaugh was telling Veronica Darrimon, a special ed teacher at a local elementary school, to evacuate, Jack Reisner was outside pounding on the Darrimons' door.
"We gotta go," he said. "The houses are burning."
Veronica Darrimon is grateful.
"She says I saved her life," Heinbaugh said. "All I did was make a phone call. If that's true, then the two sisters who called me saved my life."
Reisner also struggled with the idea that he'd helped save the lives of the Darrimons or the others whose doors he knocked on. At one door, he bashed so hard on the third try that the it opened, and he found a friend watching TV, unaware of the danger.
Still, he said, "I feel like a failure. I should have knocked on every single door in the neighborhood."
One person died in the neighborhood, on another street. Stories abound of neighbors waking neighbors and pulling them from their homes as balls of flame rained from the sky.
On Saturday night, as survivors gathered for a dinner at the Santa Rosa Junior College LDS Institute, 80-year-old Nancy Kobler explained how her two sons raced 10 miles by car from Sebastopol to Fountaingrove to wake her and rescue her.
In all, 41 have died and 100,000 people have evacuated their homes since Sunday due to 16 large wildfires in Northern California, according to the Sacramento Bee.
The crisis isn't over. Fire officials do not expect the fires to be fully contained until Friday, the New York Times reported.
Roused by their heroes, the Darrimons heard explosions and looked out their windows and saw flames, still a distance away. Allan Darrimon used the hose to water down the back of the house. Suddenly the heat at his back surpassed 100 degrees, he said.
The sight of the swirling, ember-laden diablo dervish sent him rushing to Veronica's side.
"I was so shocked and afraid at that point. I said, 'Let's get in the car. Take whatever you have in your hands,'" Allan Darrimon said.
Veronica Darrimon couldn't comprehend his concern. On the way out, she stopped at the mailbox to deposit a birthday card.
"I thought we'd be coming home," she said.
The Darrimons tried to see their home Saturday but were turned away. A reporter and photographer were able to visit the site.
The birthday card is gone. The entire mailbox is gone. Vaporized. The papers the Darrimons hoped would survive in file cabinets are ashes or disintegrate at the touch.
When the Reisners left, their house was still untouched. Worried the fire would catch them in a traffic jam, they came back past their house minutes later. It was engulfed in flames.
It went from standing to ashes in 40 minutes, Jack Reisner said. Some homes were devoured completely in 20 minutes.
"It was literally a firestorm going down that boulevard," Allan Darrimon said, "and it literally was sucking everything into its mouth. It was a full-blown firestorm, and it just consumed everything in its path. It cooked everything in its path.
"To see remnants of cars with their wheels melted off "
He stopped to shake his head.
"It's a serious memory," he finished. "It took me a couple nights to get over that."
Moth and rust
Janet Reisner called the neighborhood a war zone in a text to her daughter as she drove by her burning home.
The aftermath reeks of it. Smells range from campfire to tire fire, from burned plastic to melted metal.
Magnesium and aluminum rims melted, and the molten elements ran in streams till they cooled into misshapen strips.
"It completely melted a diamond-plate toolbox in my work truck," Jack Reisner said. "and that was a toolbox surrounded by two metal boxes. I can't believe that kind of heat, driven by the wind. We found our freezer in the rubble, and it was just a lump the size of a microwave."
The Reisners and the Darrimons and others at first headed to the Peterson Lane Ward meetinghouse, about three-quarters of a mile away. The second call that came in after the Darrimons arrived was a robocall telling them to evacuate. Everyone pulled up stakes and moved to the Stony Point Ward meetinghouse. Some have been there all week.
The Darrimons stayed there two nights. They have been ministering to those there all week, part of a close ward family that has grown closer through this experience.
"Staying connected with the Holy Spirit and using the example of our Savior, Jesus Christ, is everything in this kind of experience, because parts of it are so scary, and if I didn't have those kinds of things, I'd be a lot more panicked," said Alan Darrimon, the bishop.
Veronica Darrimon lost her childhood journals, her missionary journals from her time serving in South Dakota, and photo journals. She asked a friend for a copy of Monday's Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, restarting her destroyed collection of historic headlines.
Jack Reisner said he will miss the wedding pictures of his children and what Janet Reisner called their beautiful home.
"But when you leave this life," he said, "you don't get to take those with you. The fire reminded us that moth and rust doth corrupt. Fire corrupts, too.
"Life didn't really change," he added. "Things changed. Life didn't change. I still have the same beliefs. I'm still the same person. Life's going on."
'I was afraid'
As the fire devoured their home, the Reisners fled. He forgot his wallet. She forgot her wedding ring. They left without their passports and other critical paperwork.
"That's what I would tell people," she said. "Your 72-hour kit is where you should put your important papers and things."
They were in separate cars. When a traffic jam stopped them, Jack parked his car on the side of the road and joined Janet in her car.
"He was worried he might get out and I wouldn't," she said.
"I couldn't have lived with that," he said. "Now I know that happened to another man. I couldn't have lived with that."
They still thought they would return to a safe home.
"This is a concrete jungle," Jack Reisner said. "Who would think a fire could wipe it out?"
His wife described the flames as hell on Earth. He had a different analogy.
He remembered gathering dried-out Christmas trees and burning them in a pasture in Utah as a teenager. They burned with white and yellow flames.
"Hell to me isn't flames," he said. "Hell to me is dark and cold. The light of the Savior is warmth, pure and positive.
"The light I saw Monday morning, I didn't feel much spirit in that light," he added. "There was no yellow or white in those flames. They were orange and dark orange with some red.
"That was the light and heat of destruction."