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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.

“We completely lost” a “fit house” at the front of the building, Wilcox said. Fencing around the tennis courts was ruined. She expects resumption of golf play early in 2018. Sand pits required cleaning after the fire, which littered the place with charcoal.

During the down time, “we repainted our spin room,” Wilcox said, and “finished our floors. Now we have yoga and spin in here.” Staff members shuffle spin bikes in and out of the room to allow breathing room for yoga classes. “We are working on getting temporary buildings outside,” she said, to create room for classes.

Kim Rosales, a trainer at Fountaingrove Athletic Club since March 2017, also handles customer service. To encourage members to come back and use the facility after the fire, she offered five free training sessions. She taught classes in the fit house that was destroyed.

One of her customers lived across the street from the athletic-club building in a home with 3,700 square feet. The only thing left of the home is 15 steps of the entrance stairway. The couple live temporarily in an 800-square-foot house in Sebastopol. “They got an offer for $325,000 just for their land,” Rosales said. They plan to sell instead of rebuilding.

Rosales often eats lunch in her car. “It’s very tranquil up here,” she said, “very calming, peaceful. Life goes on.”

“We get here early in the morning,” Wilcox said. “I was checking pool chems (chemicals). Stars were out. The beauty is still here. Come swim in our beautiful pool.”

Fountaingrove Golf clubhouse will be rebuilt “grander and stronger” than it was, Wilcox said, estimating two to four years for reconstruction of the large facility, used by many business leaders for events and gatherings. “Driving up and down” the hill, she said, “it’s still unimaginable.”

In the days after the fires, she drove through ruined residential areas. “My stomach was sickened,” she said. “It’s something I hope I never see again in my lifetime. We’re happy that we’re here for members who lost everything. We give them hugs. Sometimes they’ll be talking and they start crying. They are family. We are here to help them move forward.”

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