I-Team investigates: North Bay fires burned in same spots 50 years ago

Dan Noyes Image
Thursday, November 9, 2017
I-Team investigates: North Bay fires burned in same spots years ago
The footprint of the fires last month is strikingly similar to an outbreak of wildfires more than 50 years ago.

SANTA ROSA, Calif. (KGO) -- The footprint of the fires last month is strikingly similar to an outbreak of wildfires more than 50 years ago.

Cal Fire used this history in fighting October's wildfires, and the I-Team met one man whose property narrowly escaped both infernos - last month, and in 1964.

Michael Fiumara is thankful he's a light sleeper. He spotted the flames racing toward his home in Santa Rosa's Fountaingrove neighborhood early that morning.

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"It's really scary," he said on a cell phone video October 9th. "Should we evacuate? No one tells us anything."

Fiumara evacuated with his spouse, Gordon, who suffers from Alzheimer's, and returned three days later to find devastation.

"All along here, every single home is gone," Fiumara said at the time.

Block after block of complete destruction. He drove up Sage Hill Place. His neighbors' homes -- gone, but his still standing.

"There are times I can't even believe it," Fiumara told I-Team Reporter Dan Noyes. "I pinch myself, I walk out at night and just walk around in sort of a daze because I'm thinking I'm alone, I'm alone here."

Such a close call. Flames burned trees just a few feet from his house. And before last month's fires, Fiumara knew that the property narrowly escaped burning in the 1964 Hanley fire, while again the property next door burned.

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"All of a sudden the fire takes this V-shape," Fiumara explained. "It's almost like there's a protective zone."

Fiumara's experience points to a bigger issue.

A map produced by the city of Santa Rosa shows last month's Tubbs fire in black, and the 1964 Hanley fire in red. Both had a very similar burn pattern.

In fact, Cal Fire tells us the Tubbs, Nuns and Atlas fires last month mirror fires at the same locations in 1964, with the same dry conditions, similar high winds, and the same topography.

Cal Fire Battalion Chief Jonathan Cox told the I-Team, "Fire history is a really important element to the California fire service when they're fighting a fire and also planning for fire."

Fire crews used that knowledge to cut firebreaks that finally stopped the flames in several locations. But, there's a major difference in the wildfires last month compared to 50 years ago -- the number of homes built during that time. The 1964 fires claimed 108 structures; last month, more than 5,000. And that's raising a question: should we rebuild in a known fire zone?

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"It's a tough one," says Santa Rosa Fire Chief Anthony Gossner. "There's people saying, 'Should we rebuild, should we not.' It's like, well, people have the right to rebuild, we just have to be a little smarter about it."

Sonoma County Supervisor Susan Gorin lost her Oakmont home last month, and she showed the debris on a cell phone video, saying, "This is what used to be my front door."

She says lessons will be learned, fire codes updated, and better building materials used. But homeowners have a right to rebuild -- even if their property has a dangerous history.

"All of those folks who lost houses very painfully and tragically they still own the lots," said Gorin. "And it is really in their interest to rebuild if they so choose."

There is one major difference between this year and 1964. The Hanley fire started with a hunter tossing a cigarette, and the leading cause being investigated in last month's fires -- trees knocking down power lines. Cal Fire tells us even though the heat's gone, the conditions remain dry. The fire season may not be over yet.

Click here for a look at more stories and videos about the North Bay fires.