SANTA ROSA, Calif. — In the early morning hours of Oct. 9, Bradley Pendergrass, a 2012 graduate of Draughn High School, was sleeping in his apartment in Santa Rosa, California, when he was jolted awake by someone screaming the word “fire.”
Santa Rosa was one of the cities hit the hardest by the fast-growing wildfires and Pendergrass and his boyfriend, Steven Barrett, were right in the middle of it.
“On our way home that night, I noticed that the wind was blowing really bad and we were just driving home and I was like “this isn’t going to be good,’” Pendergrass said. “I knew there was going to be a fire, but I didn’t know it was going to be this close to us.”
Around midnight, Pendergrass woke up to heavy winds beating against the apartment and, an hour later, the smell of smoke was seeping inside.
“I didn’t think to go and look to see where the smoke was coming from because in California there are always fires,” he said. “With the wind blowing like it was, I figured it was just bringing the smoke from down north like it did last time.”
Another hour passes and he hears a little girl yell, “fire, ” and that is when they knew something was wrong.
“I just jumped out of bed … and I was freaking out because I had never dealt with anything like that,” Pendergrass said.
They were told by neighbors that there was a fire right up the road and they would have to grab what they could and evacuate immediately. The power was already out, so they were using cellphone lights to see.
“Luckily, Steven and I had washed our clothes the night that it had happened and they were still in a basket in the living room, so we were able to just grab our clothes and leave,” Pendergrass said. “We were trying to grab cellphone chargers because we knew we would not be able to get back over there.”
There were people running everywhere and it was the most chaotic scene ever, he said.
They left the apartment complex not knowing what they would come back to and started the 10-minute drive straight for Barrett’s parent’s house. A couple hours later, they were then evacuated from there and told to go to a shelter that was setup in the downtown area of Santa Rosa. They stayed there until the evacuation was lifted.
Both Pendergrass and Barrett work at a testing facility that serves as a proctoring center. The building suffered severe smoke damage and they are not allowed to return to work until the start of November, he said.
Authorities have reported that 8,400 homes and businesses have been destroyed as they continue to assess the devastating damage to homes and businesses that burned in and around California’s famed wine country north of San Francisco, according to an article by The Associated Press.
“Our apartment is fine,” Pendergrass said on Tuesday. “People are slowly starting to come back.”
There was a housing development eight blocks from their apartment that was completely demolished, he said.
“It was so hard to breathe even that night and the sky was just bright orange like the sun was out,” he said. “
Pendergrass said there were reports that the wildfire was moving a mile every 10 minutes.
“It came up over the mountain and it just destroyed everything,” he said. “It looks like a wasteland , like something you would see in a movie.”
Sonoma County, in general, and Santa Rosa, in particular, suffered the most damage when a series of wildfires tore through California’s wine country starting Oct. 8. At least 42 people died most of them in Sonoma County, the AP article said.
“When we got to his parent’s house, we could hear explosions and it honestly sounded like a war zone and I guess it was just the propane and gas lines exploding,” Pendergrass said. “From the photos that I saw from our newspaper here, there were cars flipped over from exploding.”
California’s insurance commissioner has said preliminary estimates of the wildfire losses exceed $1 billion and that the figure is expected to rise, the article said.
As far as Pendergrass knows, the fires that were near to them have been contained.
“As far as clean up, they just now this week started to let people come back into the evacuation zones to their homes to try to sift through the rubble and see if there is anything they can salvage,” he said.
Pendergrass and Barrett are thankful that the damage to their apartment was minimal compared to others and that their company is paying them until they are able to open the facility back up.
“It’s basically like a paid vacation, but not the type of vacation that I would like to have,” he said.
Staff Writer Jonelle Bobak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 828-432-8907.