SANTA ROSA, Calif. — As Jennifer Pierre pulled her GMC Yukon away from the approaching flames — three nervous children and two dogs riding with her — she knew the house she saw in the rear view mirror might soon be a pile of ash.
Phil Schneider had a similar thought a few minutes later as he drove from his home a block away from Pierre’s in the Coffey Park subdivision here, two miles north of downtown.
Someone had knocked on his door at 2 a.m. to warn him about the approaching inferno.
The words weren’t necessary.
Behind the neighbor, he saw “flames flying through the air.”
As he and his wife sped away, he said, “I knew there was a 99 percent chance that my house was going to burn to the ground.”
Living just a block from each other in Coffey Park, Pierre and Schneider have never met, but they both saw the same flames from the wildfire that leveled their neighborhood and inhaled the same acrid smoke that has filled this section of Northern California all week.
Both fled on Monday morning thinking their lives had been upended and their homes were about to be destroyed. Their lives began to take wildly divergent paths that morning, dictated by whatever direction the wind happened to be blowing.
Schneider’s home survived, untouched.
A few yards away, Pierre’s family lost everything.
Pierre, 45, and her husband sifted through the ashes this week, but the existence they knew is gone — clothes, baby blankets, birth certificates, the last pictures of her brother, who died as a teenager.
Even the items in their fireproof safe had melted.
She walked past the burned-out Jeep in the driveway and went to the area that used to be her bedroom, intent on finding her wedding ring. She’d taken it off and put it on her ring holder when she went to sleep, and, in the rush to get her family to safety, that’s where it stayed.
It was metal, she told herself, surely it had survived.
They never found it, and digging through the ashes of their life was exasperating, drawing tears. They recovered almost nothing during the search, but their clothes carried the smell of soot away with them, a subtle reminder every time they inhaled.
“It’s stuff. It’s replaceable, but it’s the most gut-wrenching feeling knowing that everything you have worked for, strived for, is gone,” she said.
When Schneider, 52, returned to the neighborhood and saw his house standing, his immediate feeling was relief, he said.
In the ensuing days, it was tinged with survivor’s guilt. Why was his home spared while so many others burned?
His horseshoe-shaped street full of one- and two-story, wood-framed homes now borders a sea of devastation, the subdued blues and earth tones a virtual kaleidoscope next to a smoky gray and black landscape.
Just outside his back window, he can see clear across the subdivision, acres of smoldering plots where families once lived.
His biggest unanswered question is when he will have electricity and gas. He perked up when he saw workers from Pacific Gas and Electric, the local utility company. It had been days since he had a hot shower.
“I feel bad worrying about a shower, when my neighbors have been through all this,” he said, motioning to the devastated neighborhood. “For three days, I’ve been asking myself, ‘Why are we still here?’ ”
The answer was unsettling. He learned it from neighbors and first responders later.
As homes in Coffey Park burned, they shot flaming embers into the air, which became seeds for more fires in other homes, entirely dictated by the wind. When firefighters arrived, they made a stand against the blaze at the row of houses that included Schneider’s — homes that weren’t yet engulfed in flames.
Coffey Park was a mandatory evacuation zone for most of the week, but police were giving those whose homes were still standing wide latitude, provided they kept a low profile and didn’t bother the groups of investigators searching for the dead.
The Pierres are staying at her parents’ house, 150 miles away, in Gilroy. They’re de facto nomads. Everyone in the family has a 60-gallon tub that all their belongings must fit into. They’re all new belongings, because nothing survived the fire.
Thinking about it makes Pierre cry in quiet moments alone, or, at one point in the mall as she shopped for new clothes.
She’s answering the logistical questions one-by-one: Where will they live?
When will the children return to school?
She has no answer for the most difficult questions about her upended life: Will things ever be the same?
“Our house had a certain smell to it,” she said. “It was our house. When you come home it has that smell. How can I replicate that smell for my kids, or is it gone forever?”
“This is ranking up there with when my brother died. It’s right up there — one of the worst things that’s ever happened in my life. But I’ve got to suck it up and power through — for my kids and for my husband and for myself. I can’t have a pity party, party of one. Because if I fall apart, we’re all going to fall apart.”