US & World

Life goes on in Santa Rosa, devastated by fire

A Halloween decoration is the only thing left standing in front of homes that were destroyed by the Tubbs Fire on October 12, 2017 in Santa Rosa, California.
A Halloween decoration is the only thing left standing in front of homes that were destroyed by the Tubbs Fire on October 12, 2017 in Santa Rosa, California.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

At the Russian River Brewing Co. in downtown Santa Rosa, life goes on amid the smoky haze.

Maker of the popular Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger beers, the brewery closed for just one day after wildfires ripped through the city's northern edge, part of a series of wind-whipped blazes north of San Francisco that quickly became the deadliest in state history.

It reopened Tuesday amid power outages and mass evacuations, and there were many more sad stories than usual shared at the bar.

"I just feel we need to be here," bartender Nick Atchison said.

Search and rescue personnel look for human remains in the Journey's End Mobile Home park following the damage caused by the Tubbs Fire on October 13, 2017 in Santa Rosa, California.
Search and rescue personnel look for human remains in the Journey's End Mobile Home park following the damage caused by the Tubbs Fire on October 13, 2017 in Santa Rosa, California.
Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images

The wildfires raged all week just a few miles away from the brewery; some of the city's 2,800 homes destroyed by fire are even closer. Inside, the fires are the topic of nearly all conversations. Outside, ash continues falling from skies made overcast by acrid smoke and everybody knows somebody who has suffered in ways big and small.

Pets are missing and out-of-town homeowners are lending their houses to burned-out neighbors.

And so it goes in Santa Rosa, a city of 175,000 that is a gateway to California's fabled wine region in Sonoma and Napa counties. There's devastation in one part of the city, but elsewhere locals are back at work and wine-loving tourists are popping up again.

Burned cars sit in front of homes that were destroyed by the Tubbs Fire on October 12, 2017 in Santa Rosa, California.
Burned cars sit in front of homes that were destroyed by the Tubbs Fire on October 12, 2017 in Santa Rosa, California.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The Santa Rosa vacation home four couples from Columbus, Ohio, expected to rent this week was destroyed before they arrived on their annual winery pilgrimage. So they rented rooms in a Bodega Bay hotel.

On Thursday, they drank pints at the brewery like they do every year and made plans to visits wineries unaffected by the flames.

"We are still glad we are here," Anne Wheeler said.

Helen Willis ordered her usual Cowboy steak at the Santa Rosa Cattlemen's restaurant Thursday night after it reopened earlier in the day for the first time since Sunday. She's a retiree who lives nearby.

Aside from lost power, her home was undamaged. She and many other residents decided to go outside and brave the smoky air after sitting inside for a couple of days.

"I feel awful about the fires," Willis said. "But I needed to get out."

A view of hundreds of homes in the Coffey Park neighborhood of Santa Rosa, California. They were destroyed by the Tubbs Fire on October 11, 2017.
A view of hundreds of homes in the Coffey Park neighborhood of Santa Rosa, California. They were destroyed by the Tubbs Fire on October 11, 2017.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The commuter buses are starting to run on time on normal routes and a downtown mall has reopened while a rival mall remains closed in a commercial district without power.

Motorists on U.S. Highway 101 passed a gray ghost town of a neighborhood turned to ash by the fire that jumped the freeway Sunday night and slow to rubber neck the three destroyed fast-food restaurants. Two exits later, the Denny's remained open 24 hours, as always.

The county fairgrounds in Santa Rosa and a popular community center have been turned into evacuation centers to house some of the 4,000 newly homeless. Hotels and motels in the city are full and charging premium prices.

"We've lost almost 5 percent of the housing stock in Santa Rosa," Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey said during a Friday afternoon press conference. "We're looking at $1.2 billion in damage in Santa Rosa alone. It's a huge hill we've got to climb."

Two women hug as they watch houses burn in Santa Rosa, California on October 9, 2017.
Two women hug as they watch houses burn in Santa Rosa, California on October 9, 2017.
Jeff Chiu/AP

Residents, many of them wearing surgical masks outside, vowed to climb that hill.

At Franchettis' Wood Fire Kitchen on Friday, the family owners were firing up their ovens to prepare a free pizza dinner for the community. "The love in the air is thicker than the smoke," they posted on Facebook.

Nearby Sonoma, too, was starting to come back to life.

Buddy Chick opened Murphy's Irish Pub on Friday.

"Somebody's got to open," he said, as Irish tunes belted out over outside speakers. "There are people out there that need to eat still."

The sun sets through smoke over the remains of homes in the Fountaingrove neighborhood of Santa Rosa, California on Oct. 13, 2017.
The sun sets through smoke over the remains of homes in the Fountaingrove neighborhood of Santa Rosa, California on Oct. 13, 2017.
Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images

Eric and Julie Williams stopped by the pub with coffee cups in hand in the hopes of snagging some hamburger for their two rescue greyhounds that have been living out of a hotel since early Monday when the couple fled their home with the dogs, the clothes on their backs and Julie's mother, who was visiting from New Mexico.

Their house is OK, although the power is out. Still, they were back at work, shipping out some orders for their company that sells therapeutic items for horses.

They know they are among the lucky ones.

"We were like, 'let's just get the orders and make it happen,' and you feel better when you do that," Julie said.

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Associated Press writer Janie Har in Sonoma contributed to this report.