Not many buildings in Sonoma County have sprinklers on the outside. Fountaingrove Athletic Club has sprinklers under its wide walkways that surround part of the building.
On Oct. 9 when the Tubbs Fire roared into Santa Rosa, staff members had left a large bin full of towels in the walkway outside next to the athletic-club building. The bin sat directly under one of the sprinklers. There was no one in the club at the time.
Flames incinerated grapevines on the hillside that slopes down toward Fountaingrove Athletic Club and howled around the building, setting fire to the towels. When heat and smoke rose into the sensors, sprinklers likely activated all around the perimeter of the structure. The sprinklers probably saved the building even as nearby tennis courts were scorched and the elegant Fountaingrove Golf clubhouse just up the roadway from the athletic club burned in minutes into charred, twisted rubble.
“This is my theory,” said Caroline Wilcox, operations manager at the athletic club. “The day we had the fire (Sunday, Oct. 8) was very warm. We were very busy that day. We have bins of towels.”
She points to one bin. “This bin caught on fire,” Wilcox said. “It had a bunch of towels stacked on it. It got so hot, our fire sprinklers came on at the outside perimeter of this building. That’s what saved the building. Soot got in under the door (in the crack)” from the burned towels. The ceiling under the outdoor eaves appeared singed from the small towel fire.
Indoor sprinklers did not go off.
“I’m very thankful that we still have this building,” said Wilcox, who has worked at the club for 12 years.
The club offered its facilities as a “comfort zone” for anyone who lived in the Fountaingrove area to clean up as they dug through ashes and rubble, even non-members.
Because the clubhouse burned, a food-and-beverage outlet was set up in the athletic club, which saved several jobs. The member-owned club employs about 100 people and had nearly 750 members when the fire hit. The majority are business people, Wilcox said — doctors, dentists, attorneys, entrepreneurs. Especially last year, the club added many new members, including families.
At least 210 of the club members lost homes in the fire, Wilcox said. “Some have moved away,” dropping their memberships. About 200 members resumed use of the facilities by December.
“Some families with younger children aren’t coming back. They don’t want the kids to see it — trying to protect them. It can be nightmarish,” Wilcox said.
“Every time I saw somebody, I had tears in my eyes,” Wilcox said. “It was surreal. Seeing their faces.”
She knows many members very well. “At Thanksgiving, when we were sitting at the table saying what we were thankful for, I finally lost it, thinking of all the members here who weren’t sitting at their tables anymore.”
Fountaingrove Athletic Club reopened on Nov. 1. “We have been slowly getting people coming back in,” she said.
The adjacent pool suffered damage in the fire, Wilcox said, and required some re-plastering. Plastic grating around the pool melted. “We have that on order,” Wilcox said. The pool was open for members to swim. “We tell them to step over it.”
Solar-cell covers for the pool were also damaged, and lounge chairs melted.