As It Happens

California family narrowly escapes raging wildfire that destroyed their town

As Brad Sherwood's family slept, a wildfire barrelled towards their home in Santa Rosa, California - and after escaping with minutes to spare, they're heading back to see what's left of their neighbourhood.
Napa County firefighter Jason Sheumann sprays water on a home as he battles flames from a wildfire Monday, Oct. 9, 2017, in Napa, Calif. More wastewater has been discharged into the Niagara River in the latest in a series of overflows since a discharge blackened water near Niagara Falls in view of summer tourists. (Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press)

Story transcript

The wildfires in Northern California are some of the worst the area has ever seen.

Intense wind and months of dry weather combined to create massive fires that have devastated Napa Valley and Sonoma County.

The fires have killed have killed at least 15 people since Sunday. At least 100 people were injured and 2,000 homes and businesses destroyed, according to authorities, who warned that all those figures were expected to climb in the coming days as more information is reported.

Santa Rosa resident Brad Sherwood's week started out picture-perfect. His young family enjoyed the beautiful Sunday at a pumpkin patch, and played with their new puppy Henry. But by the early hours of Monday morning, they were fleeing for their lives.

Inferno stretching across thousands of hectares 2:10

Sherwood recalled his family's harrowing past 24 hours to As It Happens host Carol Off. Here is part of their conversation.

Brad, how are you doing?

We're here, and that's the most important thing. The family is safe, and we're with family and friends. But I'd be lying to say we were not in a state of denial.

My wife and I woke up this morning crying. I think it's slowly taking effect on what exactly happened in the last 24 hours.

How difficult was it for you to get out of Santa Rosa when the fire began?

It was extremely difficult. It was literally, Santa Rosa turned into a war zone in a matter of a few hours. And the traffic getting out was horrendous. Flames were lapping at our car as we were trying to escape the main urban area. And even as we tried to get out of town on Highway 37, which is a remote highway in southern Sonoma County, fires were breaking out in Southern Napa as well, so all of our routes out of town were on fire.

Brad Sherwood and his family visit a pumpkin patch the day before wildfires razed his home and neighbourhood in Santa Rosa, Calif. (Brad Sherwood)

Can you take us back to Sunday ... At what point did you know that there was trouble?

It was about 10:30 pm Sunday night, and our new puppy Henry — a goldendoodle, 5 months old — was scratching at our bedroom door to go out. And it's when I let him outside that I first smelled the smoke, and then saw a little bit of white ash coming down into the backyard.

So that's when I noticed something was wrong. There was something definitely different going on, because I had never seen white ash coming down before.

But you knew that there were fires around. This was the first indication it was close?

Flames illuminate the California freeways as Sherwood and his family try to escape Santa Rosa. (Brad Sherwood)
No, not at that time I did not know that there were fires, and when I went online on my iPhone, there was no indication that there were fires. The only indication that I saw was a Facebook thread from my neighbours and everyone was saying, "Geez, do you smell the smoke? Boy, look at the moon, it's blood red." And then that's when they started linking information to the Napa fires.

At what point did you realize that you had to get out?

It was after I got into my jeep and started surveying our area, and I saw nothing, just smoke. I got back home, and one of my neighbours, who's a deputy sheriff for the county, ran out of his house, jumped into his police car and said, "Get out. it's coming over the hill." 

That's when we started knocking on doors, ringing doorbells. We had several senior citizens in our neighbourhood living alone and so we immediately just started yelling, "Fire!" and "Get out!"

How old are your kids?

My son Grant is seven, and my daughter June is five.

And you got them up and bundled them into the car.

Yup. The first thing we did was get the kids up, in the car. We followed that up by getting the cats, putting them in their cage, throwing them in the car. Next we got the birds, we had four parakeets in my son's room. And then our dog Henry, [we] threw him in the car, and then anything we could get into the pre-packed boxes, we threw those into the car as well.

It was right after we had gotten the kids in the car, that the power went out. And then you heard the popping, the popping of propane tanks blowing up right up the street from us. And it was only moments after that, that we just looked up, and what was just black smoke turned into this deep, dark, orange glow. And it just flew into the neighbourhood.

Sherwood says he doesn't expect more than the chimney of his house to remain intact, much like this ruined house also in Santa Rosa. (David McNew/Getty Images)

What was leaving Santa Rosa like?

I saw a lot of care. People were honking their horns, yelling to get out, taking turns to get into line to get out of the neighbourhood. It was actually quite organized. People were not panicked. I was, through this whole incident, thinking humanity shows its true colours in these crises.

And now you're headed back into Santa Rosa to see what's left.

Yep, and to help my community. My priority was family first — like, I gotta get my kids to safety. They're safe now. I'm headed back to help the community and see what I can do to help.

What do you think is left of your house?

The chimney, that's it. We've received verification that the whole neighbourhood, our whole community is gone. Flattened. And I'm really hoping ... (deep sigh) I'm not expecting to find anything. 

We had a beautiful 85-year-old walnut tree in the front of our house. And if anything I hope that it made it, because it really was the rallying point of the whole neighbourhood.

Everyone loved that tree. And I'll tell you what — if that tree didn't make it, I'm going to plant another walnut tree right where it stood. We've gotta rebuild the community. Our kids deserve it.

This interview transcript has been edited for length and clarity. For more on this story, please listen to our full interview with Brad Sherwood.

With files from the Associated Press.