Families Tell of Homes and Memories Lost in the Flames

Jake Olsan surveys the scant remains of his family’s home in rural Sonoma County; photo courtesy Jeremy Olsan.

By Rob Gloster

Shacharit Rosenthal dropped her cellphone and left it to burn as flames approached her Santa Rosa home. Ann DuBay lost her wedding ring in the fire that consumed the rural Sonoma County house she shared with Jeremy Olsan; the only things that survived were the couple’s olive trees.

These are just two of the Jewish families who have lost homes and treasured possessions in the wildfires that are still raging in the North Bay. Some had to escape the inferno in bathrobes and slippers.

For Rosenthal and her family, a police bullhorn at 3 a.m. sent them fleeing from fires that destroyed their home and all it contained, from laptops to family photo albums.

“I’m shaking and my blood pressure is up and my heart is racing, it’s just hard for me to talk,” Rosenthal said today from the safety of a relative’s home in Berkeley. “I’m in shock.”

At least 21 people had died as of this morning in the fires that had burned 160,000 acres in Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and Yuba counties. At least 3,500 structures had been destroyed.

At Beth Ami in Santa Rosa, congregational president Henry Cohn said seven member families had lost their homes and many others evacuated to locations around the Bay Area.

Rabbi Niles Goldstein of Congregation Beth Shalom in Napa said he felt helpless because all he could offer was solace to congregants who had lost their homes.

Goldstein, who moved to Beth Shalom in July, was running a shul in New York’s Greenwich Village when planes struck the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. He said this week’s disaster brought flashbacks to that earlier tragedy.

“The quality of the air is really poor, most of us are walking around with masks,” he said. “It reminds me of the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in Lower Manhattan.”

DuBay, Olsan and their son, Jake Olsan, could see flames moving quickly toward Camp Newman on the evening of Oct. 8 from the top of their property on Heights Road, where they produce award-winning olive oil. The wind was blowing so hard “we could hardly open the car doors to get out,” Jeremy Olsan said.

The sky is red and our neighbors bushes are burning.

The couple tried to save their home by turning on sprinklers and donning headlamps to see as they used chainsaws to clear vegetation until almost midnight. When it became too smoky to breathe, they evacuated along with Jeremy’s parents, who live in a separate house on the 100-acre property.

The family, along their two dogs and two cats, raced to relatives closer to the heart of Santa Rosa, avoiding flying embers that Jeremy said were “the size of a cantaloupe.” They stopped along the way to knock on doors and roust neighbors at risk.

When Jake and Jeremy returned to Heights Road the next day, after spending the night sleeping in a pickup truck as propane tanks exploded in the distance, both houses were incinerated.

“It’s all gone. We had to buy a new toothbrush and underwear and socks,” said Jeremy, the former president of Congregation Shomrei Torah in Santa Rosa. “Yesterday was an awful day. My wife and son and my parents spent the entire day just buying the basics we need to get dressed in the morning. There was no pleasure in retail shopping yesterday.”

The Rosenthals, including three high-schoolers, were sleeping soundly on Oct. 8 after dinner in their sukkah. When they heard the police warning to evacuate, they threw on clothes and grabbed backpacks. In their haste to escape, they ran over the sukkah.

“We see the sky is red and our neighbor’s bushes are burning. There’s smoke everywhere and visibility was poor,” Shacharit related. “We started honking our car horn, to wake people up.”

Her elderly in-laws, who lost their home in the Oakland Hills fire of 1991, were evacuated from a Santa Rosa retirement community.

“They put on their bathrobe and slippers,” she said. “They’re in their 90s and they walked down the stairs and they took nothing – no hearing aids, no meds, no papers.”

The Rosenthals are members of several congregations: Chabad of Sonoma County, Beth Ami and Shomrei Torah in Santa Rosa, and Beth Jacob in Oakland. Two of their sons have won Diller Teen Awards: Daniel in 2012, and Elias this year.

After fleeing the flames, the Rosenthals visited Daniel at UC Berkeley and pointed out, “You have more things in your dorm room than we have in all of our rooms at home.”

Shacharit Rosenthal said friends and relatives have been calling and texting nonstop asking what they can do to help, filling her with hope for the future.

“Our neighborhood is destroyed. We lost everything,” she said. “It’s all gone, but we have great memories and we’ll build our future together.

“Things can be replaced – your lives, your family, your community, that’s all that matters.”

To the Olsan-DuBay family, the support of the local Jewish community has reminded them of the importance of those ties. Members of San Rafael’s Congregation Rodef Sholom brought lunch yesterday to Shomrei Torah, where DuBay is a board member; volunteers from Kol Shofar in Tiburon brought food today.

“This kind of all goes under the heading of we feel supported by this community,” Jeremy said. “It’s part of what people don’t get about synagogue life in 2017. There are so many people who don’t know what they’re missing. There are probably a lot of Jews in Sonoma County and Napa County who are unaffiliated who moved here for the good life and don’t have the kinds of resources for a natural disaster like this or for life that we’ve gotten out of our synagogue. It’s been invaluable for us, our son, our parents.”

This article first appeared in J – the Jewish News of Northern California; reprinted with permission.