Warning signs: SRJC baseball coach loses home, recovers coveted State Championship ring

Albert Gregory, Managing Editor

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It took three signs of trouble for Tom Francois, a Santa Rosa Junior College assistant baseball coach, to realize he needed to evacuate his Fountaingrove home of 19 years during the Tubbs Fire.

He initially woke up at about 2 a.m., noticed the power was out, and heard the wind knocking things around. He decided it wasn’t anything serious and returned to bed.

He woke up 10 minutes later and could smell smoke, but still decided it was nothing.

“I figured wind must’ve blown a transformer, and hot wire must’ve started some brush fire,” Francois said.  

He went back to bed again, but 10 minutes later his next door neighbor came by and pounded on his door. He finally got up.

“I’m an amputee, so it took me a little longer to get to the front door,” Francois said. In 2001 he felt a pain in his thigh while playing racquetball, went to the doctor and found out he had a blood clot from his knee down.

The neighbor told Francois he had to get out of there because “fires are coming.”

“The smoke was so thick I could hardly see in front of me,” Francois said. “The wind was just howling, and in all honesty, I thought maybe I could ride this thing out.”

He realized he couldn’t stay, but thought at least he could get his 2010 Toyota Tacoma out of the garage.

The neighbor across the street noticed Francois’ dilemma and instructed her husband, Mike Musson, to help.

He picked up the garage door and held it open while Francois got his truck out. “I’ll tell ya that doggone thing was heavy,” Francois said.

Francois drove out of his neighborhood down Lake Park Drive and noticed the open area on the south was completely engulfed in flames. “It was coming like a freight train,” he said. “I could see over the ridge there was this red glow and I said, ‘This is not good.’”

The fire was within striking distance. “I said, ‘Man alive, if that jumps this road and I’m only a quarter mile away, I’m done,” Francois said. “To be honest with you I was hoping for the best and thinking the worst.”

He took off for his brother’s house in Sebastopol. When he arrived, he turned on the television only to see Kmart and Mountain Mike’s burning in Northwest Santa Rosa. Then he saw Cardinal Newman High School, Paradise Ridge Winery, the Fountaingrove Inn, The Hilton and the Extended Stay America hotel burn.

“All of that was within half a mile of my house,” Francois said.

Francois’ son Matt showed him a picture of a house on Palisades and Bella Vista that was within two blocks. “I knew then that my house was gone,” he said.

About 30 minutes later, a neighbor called to inform Francois that the entire development had been leveled and there was nothing left.

“It looked like something out of a war movie. The only thing missing were the craters from the bombs, but there was fire still going, smoke still going,” Francois said. “We saw a house — it was fully involved and I mean it was a huge home and there was nobody there to fight it because those guys were spread so darn thin.”

Francois returned to the rubble where his home had stood around 10 a.m. on Monday. Finding it too hot to sift through the debris, he decided to wait a day.  

Francois served as police officer for 33 years in the City of Campbell. David Carmichael, the current Campbell police chief, called him and said “Tom, there’s officers coming up to help you.” Despite Francois’ refusals, the officers insisted and returned once again on Tuesday.

The officers and Francois recovered two police badges he had in a shadow box and, “most importantly,”  his state championship ring from SRJC baseball’s win in 2016.

“It was pretty toasted, but I’m just happy to get it back,” he said. The officers promised to make him a new shadow box.

“I’m just thanking god I’m alive.”

Now it’s Francois doing the difficult job of navigating through the insurance companies, but he feels overall Hartford has been great and he feels blessed with all of the help and resources friends and family have offered. He puts SRJC head baseball coach Damon Neidlinger at the top of that list.

“He was the first guy to call me and said ‘Tom I have a room for you and you can stay here as long as you want,’” Francois said.

His family offered the same assistance, but he felt overwhelmed by all the help, and he knew no matter where he would go, it would be temporary.

“I don’t want to be moving from pillar to post,” Francois said.

For now, he’s staying at his brother’s house and trying to find a more permanent place in the next two weeks, hopefully in Santa Rosa.

“The furthest I want to go is Petaluma, but if I have to go further I’ve got to do it,” Francois said. “It’s like I tell the boys on the field ‘We adapt and overcome,’ and that’s what I’m in the process of doing right now.”

Francois had his house built more than 20 years ago. He raised a family in that house. He lost his wife while living in that house.

“I lost my wife three and a half years ago, and that house was a tribute to her,” Francois said.

“Every nook and cranny of that house was hers. Her memories will always be in my heart and my head, but I want to rebuild that house as a monument to her. It gives me something to look forward to.”

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