SANTA ROSA, Calif. – Dinesh Patel, Indian American vice president of quality/regulatory affairs at NeilMed Pharmaceuticals, awoke at 3:15 a.m. Oct. 9 morning with a difficult decision to make: whether to evacuate the house he and his wife and children had lived in for the past decade in Fountaingrove, Calif., or to gamble that the fires raging through Sonoma County would somehow skirt by his structure.
“Friends kept calling to tell us to get out,” said Patel, who quickly became aware that he needed to move his wife Aruna, and his guest from India to safety as soon as possible.
“There was no power, no light. As we got out, there was thick smoke everywhere. It was so difficult to breathe. There was no time to get anything. We left with just the clothes on our backs,” Patel told India-West, standingamidst the charred rubble of his home, which burned to the ground that morning.
India-West on the afternoon of Nov. 5 met with several families who had lost their homes to the fire; their harrowing stories of emergency evacuations, along with photos of the charred remains of their houses, are featured here.
Most of the victims are still homeless and searching for permanent shelter in rental homes – which are in short supply – as they rebuild their houses, a process which will take more than two years.
Fountaingrove – near Santa Rosa – has a large concentration of Indian American families. Indians first began moving into Sonoma County in the 1970s to run the many hotels and motels which dot the region, said Patel, explaining that the next generation moved there because of the many medical technology companies which are headquartered in nearby Santa Rosa.
“This is a wonderful community of Indian families. Everyone is so loving here,” Gopi Sheth, who lost her home to the fire, told India-West. She noted a community park where Indian Americans – young and old – gather each evening. “We call it Mahatma Gandhi park,” she joked.
About 50 families in Fountaingrove lost their homes and all of their belongings Oct. 9 morning, in the most destructive fire ever to hit the state of California.
Dave Jones, California state’s insurance commissioner, noted in a Nov. 5 news release that claims for more than $3.2 billion have been filed to date. A total of 4,712 homes were completely destroyed. More than 10,000 homes were partially destroyed, and 43 people died in the fires that continued for several days.
Ketan Mehta, founder of NeilMed Pharmaceuticals, organized a “town-hall” style meeting at his home Nov. 5 afternoon, to help families recover from the aftermath of the fires. Mehta has several families – rendered homeless by the disaster – currently living for an undetermined period of time in his Santa Rosa home.
Pediatrician Paulomi Shah, president of the North Bay Indo American Association, who helped to organize the event at Mehta’s house, told the gathered attendees: “It is so touching to see everyone here. I want you to know that the community supports you. We’re here for you every step of the way.”
Shah has also suffered considerable damage to her home (Read India-West’s earlier story here).
Volunteers with the San Jose, Calif., chapter of SEWA International packed 50 large boxes to distribute to people at the meeting. The boxes contained supplies necessary for Indian American families, such as a spice box with spices, a pressure cooker, an idli steamer, a Ganpati, rolling pin, strainer, and farsan, among other items.
“We are asking the community what their basic needs are,” Minal Joshi, a volunteer with SEWA International, told India-West. She noted that a single anonymous donor funded the $5,000 needed to gather up supplies for the boxes.
Steve White, project manager with CPM Environmental, which specializes in demolition, told the attendees that the debris remaining in the lots of their burned-down homes must be removed immediately – according to government mandates – and the remaining soil on the property must be tested for toxicity before any rebuilding can begin.
FEMA’s Army Corps of Engineers are offering a debris removal service, but it is not free, noted White, adding that ACE will bill the homeowner’s insurance, leaving the homeowner responsible for any additional charges.
Debris removal by ACE for a 2,000-square-foot home will cost between $110,000-$250,000, said White, noting that soil analysis is an additional cost. Many homeowners are facing uncertainties as to how much their insurance will cover, he said, adding, however, that residents can apply for a government loan if they are underinsured for debris removal and soil testing. White said it typically takes two to five days to clean a site, and noted that it will take two to three years for people to rebuild their houses.
Homeowners wishing to avail of ACE’s services must sign up before Nov. 13. FEMA expects to have all debris removal completed by early 2018.
The Environmental Protection Agency has already surveilled destroyed sites and removed items that pose an immediate hazard, such as propane tanks, batteries, paints, and refrigerators, which contain Freon.
‘Determined to Have No Regrets’ - Dinesh and Aruna Patel
Dinesh Patel and his wife Aruna bought their 3,000-square-foot home – on a 10,000 square foot lot – in Fountaingrove in 2008, when Dinesh joined NeilMed. The Patels’ two grown sons, Amit and Chirag, spent part of their childhood in the home, which overlooked a valley and green hillsides.
As the fires began late Oct. 8 evening, Dinesh Patel told India-West he could not decide what to do. As calls from friends started pouring in, he decided to evacuate his wife and a guest from India. His sons, luckily, were not there.
Struggling to find the flashlight device on his phone, Patel found his keys and manually opened his garage door, as power was already out. “We took no clothes, and nothing else,” he recalled.
The Patels evacuated early morning Oct. 9 to the home of a friend in Rohnert Park, where 60 to 70 people had also gathered. “We saw the devastation on the news, fearing the worst had happened to our homes,” he said, noting that it took three weeks before he was allowed to return to his home site, which had been reduced to rubble.
When he returned, Patel was shocked by what he saw: the houses on either side of his home had also completely burned down, as well as a property across the street.
Dinesh and Aruna, along with several other families, are now staying for an undetermined period of time at Ketan Mehta’s home. As they begin the process of rebuilding their home – a project estimated to cost over $1 million – the Patels are looking for a rental home in the area.
Even before the fires, housing in the San Francisco Bay Area was scarce and expensive. The fires have rendered thousands of additional families searching for temporary housing.
“It is very difficult to find a house to rent,” said Dinesh Patel.
“After the first day, I was determined that I would have no regrets. I will rebuild, and insurance will help to a certain point.”
“It’s just a matter of taking the next steps now,” he said.
‘Embers Flying Up My Driveway’ – Joyjeet and Madhumita Bhowmik
On the night of the fires Oct. 8, Joyjeet Bhowmik and his wife Madhumita were also undecided as to whether to evacuate their 4,000-square-foot, two-story home. “There was no notification. The landlines were out. We expected someone to come by with a bullhorn to tell us to evacuate,” Bhowmik, research and development integrating manager at Keysight Technologies, told India-West.
Inside his home, Bhowmik could hear his concrete tiles on his roof rattling against the fierce winds. He could smell smoke, and saw a reddish glow over the ridges of the hills near his home.
“We could see a lot of activity going on in Fountaingrove, and police cars were going by without their lights on, but there was still no notification. It was kind of eerie.”
“As the glow over the ridges grew stronger, I knew we could be in danger. My wife and I started to think about how we could evacuate,” said Bhowmik.
As the Bhowmiks manually opened their garage door, they entered into the strong winds, which were like a whirlwind, recalled Joyjeet. “There were streams of embers flying up my driveway,” he said, noting that he grabbed just a handful of documents and nothing else as he and Madhumita, and their daughter Rituja fled.
“We saw hedges on fire as we started coming down the hill,” said Bhowmik, adding that visibility was poor.
The family first took shelter at Veterans Hall in Santa Rosa, which meant having to navigate through a thick wall of smoke.
The Bhowmiks next went to a friend’s house in Windsor, Calif., where they are currently living. Rituja’s school remained closed for about 10 days, but has now re-opened.
Joyjeet Bhowmik said he would like to rebuild the house he has lived in for six years, but is facing a cost of about $2 million – $500 per square foot – and a timespan of about two years.
“We went to go see our house but there was nothing remaining,” he said.
‘Not Attached to Things Anymore’ - Gopi and Vipul Sheth
“I never thought this was possible in America,” said Gopi Sheth, of the terrible night when she and her husband Vipul had to evacuate the home they had lived in for over a decade. “The fire was so close to our home. The whole mountain was red. My husband said there was no way to survive this if we stayed,” Sheth told India-West.
Gopi Sheth grabbed only a watch she had received recently from her son as an anniversary present, and a small Ganpati. She woke up her brother, who lives nearby, and told him to evacuate as well. In her panic, Sheth said she could not find her car keys.
“To leave my home was very tough,” said Sheth, mourning that she had left behind a folder filled with mementoes of her daughter’s youth, which she had intended to present to her on her wedding day.
The family did not know where they were going as they set out, but followed other families to a casino in nearby Rohnert Park, where they found several of their friends.
The Sheths are also now living at Ketan Mehta’s home, for an undetermined period of time. Gopi Sheth said the family is unlikely to rebuild, as they are underinsured.
“We went back to the house, but we could not sort through the rubble. I’m not attached to things anymore. This is the lesson I have learned,” said Sheth.
‘Rebuilding Process So Overwhelming’ - Mona and Sanjay Dhar
Mona Dhar, who with her husband, cardiologist Sanjay Dhar, owns Pamposh restaurant in Santa Rosa, came home late night Oct. 8, to face an unexpected disaster.
“I got out of the car and smelled smoke,” Dhar told India-West, adding she stood continuously watching by a window in their bedroom. “I saw the glow of fire, and called my husband out of bed. We were both in shock. The glow was way too close.”
Dhar saw an ember land on a nearby house, and – within a matter of seconds – the entire house was on fire. “We panicked and got out of there with nothing but the clothes on our backs.”
The Dhars have a gate at the entrance to their home, but without power, could not open it as embers flew around them. Luckily, a rugged neighbor happened by and pushed the gate open. “We owe him our lives,” said Dhar. “I still keep playing that terrifying moment over and over in my head.”
The neighbors initially all gathered at Pamposh. “We felt blessed to be alive and to have a place where we were safe,” said Dhar. “I felt lucky that the kids weren’t home to see their house burning down.”
The Dhars are currently staying in a rental apartment in Santa Rosa, and deciding whether to rebuild. “The process is so overwhelming,” she said, noting that her insurance company is only covering 70 percent of the cost.
“Six years of our life are completely gone,” said Dhar.
Funds to aid the victims of the Sonoma County, Calif., fires are being collected by:
— By Sunita Sohrabji