‘It looks like a war zone’

Community members among those devastated by Sonoma county fires

Ritu Jha

The charred home of Mangal Singh Dhillon
The charred home of Mangal Singh Dhillon, president of the Santa Rosa Gurdwara Sahib in Santa Rosa, California

The banging on the front door began at around 2 am – hard, insistent, unrelenting.

Bleary-eyed from sleep and still disoriented, Mangal Singh Dhillon pulled the door open to find a Sonoma County sheriff shouting at him to take his family and immediately leave the area.

The wildfire sweeping through the area was hungrily eating their way uphill through the upmarket homes on Sky Farm Drive in Santa Rosa, California, and headed for his home.

October 9 was the last time Dhillon saw his house, lit up by tongues of flame closing in on it. He had bought it nine years ago, for $3 million.
“It’s was my dream house – 7,200-square-foot, on a hilltop,” Dhillon said, adding, “We used to watch July 4 fireworks [from up there]. Now, no more….”

“When I opened the door the fire was just 10 feet away,” Dhillon told Indica News. Worse, he could see it was spread over a large area.

“We were able to take out two cars but we had to leave the third car because we were not able to locate the key quickly,” he said. Dhillon, a diabetic, had no time to even grab his medicine.

“The fire alarm was ringing. It was all chaotic.” he said.
Dhillon is grateful to the sheriff for risking his life to save him and his family.

Metaphorically speaking, Dhillon is twice burned. His earlier home, one he bought on Mocha Lane, also in Santa Rosa, in 1990 also fell victim to a wildfire.

But this time it was worse, he said referring to the smoking ruins he just left behind.

“My children were born in that house. I have lost all my treasured memories,” said Dhillon.
“We lost all the photos [including of] their first birthdays. Every photo is gone,” he said in a voice choked with emotion.

Dhillon, the president of the Santa Rosa gurdwara, drove toward his office because it was upwind from the fire. But there was no respite there since by 4 am the fire was again headed their way.

According to a California Wildfires Statistics , the wildfires have killed 41 people in California out of  which 20 are resident of Sonoma County.

The statistics shows 40,000 plus people had to evacuate their home since Oct. 9. The fires, fueled by dry conditions and winds as fast as 60 mph have run their way through nearly 213,000 acres of land and 5,700 homes and structures.

The fire that started the night of October 8 had California Governor Jerry Brown declare a state of emergency in eight counties: Napa, Sonoma, Yuba counties, Butte, Lake, Mendocino, Nevada and Orange.

The Fountain Grove Parkway neighborhood after Oct. 9 wildfire
The Fountain Grove Parkway neighborhood after the Oct. 9 wildfire in Santa Rosa. Inset, resident Dr. Mandeep Nagra, an internal medicine specialist at Santa Rosa Veteran Outpatient Clinic. Photo, courtesy, Dr. Mandeep Nagra

Dr. Mandeep Nagra, who owns a house on Fountain Grove Parkway, told Indica News he was more fortunate than the other Indian friends on his block, many of them doctors like him, who lost their houses.

“The fire just touched the walls of our home,” he said, “We are very lucky.”

Like Nagra, who practices internal medicine at the Santa Rosa Veteran Outpatient Clinic, their homes cost more than a million dollar apiece.

Nagra had to rush out with his wife, three daughters, his parents and a dog. He said he had to leave in sleeping shorts and that he did not have time even to wear his turban. His wife, a doctor at Kaiser Permanante in Santa Rosa, left behind her cell phone, usually a mainstay in emergencies.

His brother-in-law was less lucky, having his house – along with his neighborhood – gutted by the sweeping fires.

“We are at a friend’s house now,” said Nagra. Since their places of work are closed, he and his wife are working from home, trying to order medicines for veterans and providing other basic help.

He said that when the fires initially began, firefighters did not even try to stop them because they knew how futile it was, given the gusty winds. Instead, they concentrated on saving people.

“It’s such a devastating situation,” Nagra said. “There is so much smoke and pollution in the area right now,” he said. “There is a lot of chaos. It looks like a war zone.”


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