Three months ago, wildfire raged through Fountaingrove business district in Santa Rosa, burning hotels, restaurants and stores in an inferno of destruction. Where flames left business buildings intact, tenants were kept out for nearly three weeks as crews worked to rid ventilation ducts and carpets of the stench of smoke, and to restore Internet, power and phones.
When they returned to their offices, business owners and employees encountered a bizarre realm, ordinary at one glimpse then juxtaposed in shocking contrast with ash, blackened trees and twisted ruination.
Weirdness persists as the business burn zone struggles back in a healing that will take years.
Though its building appeared resistant to fire with large adjacent parking lots, Santa Rosa Community Health’s Vista Campus on Round Barn Circle had its upper floor penetrated with flame, wrecking much of the interior. A window on that floor was broken, and may have served as the fire’s entry point.
In December, crews from Restoration Management Company gathered computer monitors and processing units and piled them in front of the entrance— worthless technology. To protect patient information, hard drives will be scrubbed clean. Hard drives can be wrecked even by smoke, according to a worker from Restoration Management.
Barely 100 steps across the street sits a BasinStreet Properties building that houses Pisenti & Brinker accounting firm.
“We’re back up and running,” said Brett Bradford, partner in the firm. “We were prevented from getting access to the building” for about three weeks.
About 25 people work for the company in Santa Rosa. “We went to our Petaluma office. We were able to squeeze everybody in,” Bradford said. “It was uncomfortable and tight. We had to get new equipment set up. Our servers were here. We had to sneak in and grab some of that. The servers were fine.”
They were lucky. Howling flames descended the hill and turned a car in the Vista parking lot across the street into a mound of melted aluminum and plastic. Tires on the car burned to powdered rubber. Two months later, the parking spot where the car had been was still blackened and charred, but the hulk was gone.
“The outside perimeter” of the Pisenti & Brinker building was scorched by fire, Bradford said, with “paint bubbling off.” The BasinStreet building is newer than the one that housed Santa Rosa Community Health, and it has an exterior like stucco, he said.
Joshua Moore, another partner at Pisenti & Brinker, notes the change in working environment. “It’s definitely a distraction,” Moore said. “I can see the crews all day long. The amount of people working on that building, how long they continued to work — amazing.” The restoration crews often set up lights and work into the night, he said.
Both partners expressed deep gratitude that their company’s headquarters survived. “Very close to home,” Moore said. Out of about 50 employees in the company, none lost a home in the fire; one of the founders did, Moore said, and family members of staff lost homes.
During the early days of the fire, “we checked on everybody’s mental well-being,” Bradford said. “Nobody was getting that much work done. Everybody was traumatized, worrying about what was going on. It was good to get everybody together, talk about their experience, a catharsis. Everybody was safe.”
“We’re still talking about it,” Moore said of his family. “We all had close calls,” but no one lost homes. On his commute from home near Calistoga Road, “the drive over, I see all the houses gone,” he said. “When I drive home, it’s interesting to see the absence of light.”
“It definitely impacted business for that month,” Bradford said. “We were able to get back” up and running.
“We have had more calls than we’d like from people who lost everything,” Moore said. “We are taking advantage of disaster provisions on the tax side (see story in tax section).”
Across the street from Pisenti & Brinker in the Santa Rosa Community Health building, Restoration Management started work on Oct. 17, according to Emilio Cañedo, the company’s operations manager on site in December. The crew has between 50 and 70 workers, Cañedo said. Restoration Management is based in Hayward.
It will take at least nine months to bring the building back to the point where it can be used for business, Cañedo said. “When we came in, we saw the damage inside the building,” which was largely gutted, though the exterior is about 80 percent intact, he said. “Some places were affected,” but “the place next to it, nothing happened,” Cañedo said.
Keysight Technologies, an electronic-measurement technology company with its headquarters and main campus on the south side of Fountaingrove Parkway, lost its Vista East and Vista West buildings along with an on-site school. Out of about 1,100 employees who work on the campus, 119 lost their homes. A Keysight electrical engineer, Michel Azarian, 41, was caught in fire near his home on Redwood Hill Road and found on Oct. 9 with burns over a majority of his body. Azarian, who survived for nearly eight hours before he was found, was taken to UC Davis Medical Center. He died Nov. 26 after seven weeks in the hospital.
In the company’s earnings call on Dec. 6, Keysight CEO Ron Nersesian described the company’s recovery from the fire. Keysight delivered strong order growth in its fourth quarter of 2017 that is “even more meaningful when considering the unimaginable challenges our team faced in the Santa Rosa wildfires in October,” Nersesian said. “I am proud of how the Keysight team came together to help the community and each other. I am inspired by their resiliency, acts of courage and generosity.”
Firefighters jumped onto the roof of Keysight headquarters located just a few yards from the destroyed structures and saved it. Three other main buildings also escaped devastation.
“Our Santa Rosa headquarters did incur some damage and was temporarily closed,” Nersesian said. The evacuation “did have an impact on our operations,” he said, but the company is positioned for a strong year in 2018. “Keysight is a global company with global operations,” Nersesian said. “Our strategy is driving growth.” The company expects revenue of more than $3 billion.
Fountaingrove Oral Surgery, owned by Peyman Hedayati, has offices at 855 Fountaingrove Parkway. The building survived the wildfire. On Oct. 10, a fire hose sat abandoned, still connected to a hydrant on the corner next to the building. Landscaping had been blackened in the parking lot.
Dentist Andrew McCormick has offices on the bottom floor of the building. About 20 people work in the structure.
Hedayati, whose offices are on the second floor, lost his home in the fire, and yet is “in great spirits” and plans to rebuild, said Karen Palmer, who handles administrative functions for Fountaingrove Oral Surgery. Neighbors in Hedayati’s cul-de-sac had a holiday party and planned to work together. “Their dog barked, and that’s what woke them up,” Palmer said. “Stella (the dog) made it through.” Hedayati paid to have his own debris-removal process, she said.
“We were out for about a month,” said Palmer. “They opened the roads on Nov. 1. We couldn’t get up here. It was crazy. One of the glass panels downstairs broke,” worsening smoke damage in the building.
“It was very strong,” Palmer said. It took about a week and a half to reorganize before reopening. “We had to throw away a lot of our supplies. We had to reorder everything.”
Hedayati managed to get into the closed office in the days after the fire and remove computers containing records, she said. “We tried to get up here ourselves one day,” she said, and National Guard members turned them away.
“It’s amazing how many patients were impacted,” Palmer said. “Some days we had four people here, and they all lost their homes.” Patients called to ask about their appointments, marveling that the business survived the fire. Patients who had not been into the Fountaingrove business district since the fires routinely remark about the extent of destruction in the charred landscape.
Daisy Andrade, a surgical assistant in Fountaingrove Oral Surgery, noted the challenges of finding sources of food for lunch in the aftermath of the fire. Sweet T’s Restaurant on Stagecoach Road next to Fountaingrove Parkway burned in the fire. A Trader Joe’s store on Cleveland Ave. at the bottom of the Fountaingrove was damaged and closed, though not destroyed by flames.
Palmer noted the rumble of debris-laden trucks going down the hill all day every day as they clear rubble from businesses and homes. She pointed out the window at rapidly greening hillsides across from the Hedayati offices. Fountaingrove will heal.
“Lately, with the grass growing, when the sun starts to go down, it’s really pretty,” Andrade said, “the contrast of the green and burned trunks” of trees. “It gives us hope. Wow. We are going to be OK.”
James Dunn covers technology, biotech, law, the food industry, and banking and finance. Reach him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 707-521-4257