Santa Rosa firestorm’s lasting impact on business

FountainGrove Inn and Equus restaurant are gone, left in rubble by fire. (James Dunn / North Bay Business Journal)

JAMES DUNN,

NORTH BAY BUSINESS JOURNAL

A firestorm roared over the hill from Calistoga on Oct. 9 and swept through iconic Fountaingrove Parkway business district in northeast Santa Rosa, leaving many buildings in ruins while sparing others nearby. The fluky flames carved a patchwork of business survivors amid a smoky, blackened landscape of charred remains.

At the bottom of the hill, FountainGrove Inn Hotel and Equus restaurant suffered total loss in the conflagration, along with Fountaingrove Round Barn, built in 1899 and preserved as a landmark. The red barn originally housed horses used in nearby vineyards. Fountaingrove Inn and Equus restaurant were designed by prominent Santa Rosa architect Larry Simons, 80, an expert horseman who incorporated an equine theme into the elegant structures. Since 2003, the inn and restaurant have been owned by Angelo Ferro of San Rafael.

Just up the hill was Hilton Sonoma Wine Country, which had 250 rooms, all turned to twisted shards and charcoal. The hotel’s Nectar restaurant was incinerated.

But on Round Barn Boulevard not much farther uphill, Fountaingrove Center’s buildings survived intact except for singed trees and landscaping in parking lots. The lowest building (3554 Round Barn) holds offices of Kaiser Permanente, Artisan Sotheby’s International Realty, Merrill, Arnone & Jones law firm, and other attorneys, insurance firms and engineers, plus Scarbrough Financial Group. Another building (3550 Round Barn) holds Wells Fargo Advisors, Summit Funding, Enlow Technology Partners, Babin & Seeger (insurance attorneys), Redwood Trust Deed Services, Umpqua Bank, Buckingham Strategic Wealth, Praxis Capital and Kaiser’s office of public affairs.

Basin Street’s 5 buildings survive

The three large edifices plus two others nearby are owned by Basin Street Properties, which had a crew already on site. Jeffery Rylance, assistant chief engineer for Basin Street, expressed gratitude for his company’s fortune as he stood outside the buildings with their landscaping still charred and smoking. “We got very lucky,” Rylance said. “Down below we had an aluminum trash can that melted right in front of the building. That’s 1,200 degrees (Fahrenheit). But the building is OK. We shut the gas lines off. We will systematically check every building” then clean and change filters.

“Security should be in place today,” Rylance said. “Everything is locked down.”

The company had no employees on site when the fire hit during early morning hours Monday. “Janitorial was done Saturday,” he said. “I have quite a few friends who lost their homes,” including a house worth some $10 million on Mark West Springs Road to the north.

Fire wiped out electricity for the entire business district. Backup power ran for more than 16 hours in some buildings, according to Rylance, and fire alarms continued to ring on Oct. 10 long after fire wreaked havoc and galloped west to devour a Kmart, Journey’s End mobile-home park and dozens of homes in the Coffey Park neighborhood. “They’re still going,” he said of the ringing alarms. “The sprinkler system will still work. It’s not an issue.”

Santa Rosa city crews shut off water to buildings in the area. “I know that 3700 (Old Redwood Highway) down below here still has water. We found a toilet running and shut it off,” he said. “We have checked one building of ours so far (3700). We were going to 3562 (Round Barn Circle) next. It looks like it has outside damage.” The building at 3700 also had outside burns.

“Tenants are not allowed up here until power is restored,” he said. “We will grant access if we’re with them, let them remove whatever they deem necessary.” He estimated that electricity might return within a week.

Keysight gives aid to employees

On up Fountaingrove Parkway, fire hurtled through the campus of Keysight Technologies, leaving all four of the company’s main buildings intact but demolishing Vista East and Vista West buildings located just north of Building 1. Those structures were a total loss. About 1,100 employees work on the campus full time, plus contract workers.

On the morning of Oct. 10, an emergency response team from the company surveyed the damage and started inspections.

Building 1 holds the company’s executive offices, including Ron Nersesian, CEO and president. Nersesian was advised of the fire while he was on a return flight from Frankfurt, Germany. As of Oct. 10, he had not visited the Santa Rosa campus. “They will not let me on the site right now,” Nersesian said. “Hazmat people are doing site evaluation.”

Vista East and West are small, modular buildings for office overflow, Nersesian said. “Those are destroyed. Also the Hidden Valley Satellite School was destroyed. We donate part of our land and have a small satellite school for young kids, typically kids of our employees.” A credit union to serve employees was also in those buildings, along with auditors.

“The main operations take place in four massive buildings,” Nersesian said. “Those buildings were hit with minor damage. But until we go in and complete the inspections,” he said, the company won’t have full details. He noted that a television station incorrectly reported that the entire site was destroyed. “That is not true,” Nersesian said.

“We have rooms inside of rooms” in the buildings that likely protected sensitive technology from the fire’s heat, he said, “Building 1 in particular.”

“We have safety stock that we maintain at an offsite bunker in Colorado Springs,” Nersesian said, “so we can maintain an assurance of supply for our customers.”

“We have tried to contact every Santa Rosa employee,” he said. “We have spoken to hundreds of them. We want to verify the whereabouts of every single employee. We had evacuated the whole building. We have a second shift — the graveyard shift. Nobody was hurt or exposed.”

“We are going to keep employees out for this next week,” Nersesian said. “We’re going to give them full pay. Most of our manufacturing is done in other locations. We don’t anticipate any significant impact.”

The Santa Rosa facility has one of Keysight’s largest research and development teams. “We have thousands of people in R&D around the world,” he said.

“Our focus is on our employees first, our customers second and our shareholders third,” Nersesian said. Any employee who lost a home will receive $10,000 from Keysight. “That is a donation to them,” he said, “no payback.” He had preliminary reports of about 30 homes lost among the first few hundred employees contacted.

Employees who were evacuated or displaced will each receive $1,000 from the company. “Smoke is so thick in certain areas or people are in evacuation zones,” he said. A Keysight hotline was set up to provide medications, water or other items to employees in need, with a travel agency to locate hotel rooms.

Nersesian used to live about a mile and a half up the hill from Fountaingrove Golf & Athletic Club up the hill on the other side of the road. “My old house as well as my neighbor’s home were destroyed,” he said.

Fountaingrove Golf clubhouse destroyed

Fountaingrove Golf & Athletic Club, long a gathering place for business leaders, had its clubhouse obliterated by fire, with tennis courts ravaged. The golf course was founded in 1885. The athletic building survived the fire, including an intact plastic play structure right next to the structure.

But the clubhouse was a twisted mess of debris on Tuesday. A San Mateo police car rolled through the site, still smoking from fire. A redwood tree in the parking lot next to the athletic center had been scorched black from the ground to about six feet up. But the rest of the tree, even low branches, was unscathed.

Farther down the hill on the north side of the parkway, damage was intermittent on Round Barn Circle. A Moss Adams building had fire burn all the way to its shell but go no further. Zainer Rinehart Clarke CPAs survived, scorched but unscathed. O’Brien Watters & Davis law firm had its front lot blackened, yet the building was fine. Medtronic’s campus was mostly untouched. Vista Family Health Center, part of Santa Rosa Community Health, showed damage to the upper part of the building. Pisenti & Brinker’s (CPAs) headquarters appeared untouched, along with MorganStanley offices.

As the Tubb firestorm hurtled across Mendocino Avenue, it wiped out the Kmart store on Cleveland Avenue with nearly total devastation. But across Cleveland, 24-hour Fitness and Joann fabrics and crafts suffered no damage. Farther west and north to Hopper Avenue, a Security Public Storage business had significant damage to some of its storage units.

James Dunn covers technology, biotech, law, the food industry, and banking and finance. Reach him at: james.dunn@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4257