Fire burned everything but passion for Santa Rosa Junior College student Gena Bernabe, 19.
Oct. 8 was another typical night at work for Bernabe, who served food while the fire raged on the little TV in the corner of Applebee’s. She had no idea that her life would change that night.
Driving home from work around midnight, she noticed the high winds and fiery illumination, but thought nothing of it. At home she went to bed like normal.
Two hours later she awoke to a commotion. “I could hear roaring winds and so many people in my neighborhood were screaming and screaming,” Bernabe said.
When Bernabe looked outside, she saw the flames—in her own backyard.
She sprang into action, grabbing miscellaneous items in a frantic flurry. She retrieved only her school bag and the contents of a full laundry hamper.
“I had no more time,” Bernabe said. “Everything around us was on fire, and it had only been five minutes since I had woken up.”
As Bernabe and her aunt climbed into the car to leave, they realized her uncle had not yet left. Panicked, her aunt sprinted back inside to rescue her husband, but told Bernabe to leave.
“I honestly thought that was the last time I was going to see them,” she said.
The firestorm raged in her rearview mirror as she left her neighborhood alone. Every house she passed had already encountered the fire, each home suffering various degrees of destruction.
“It looked like a fire tornado out there. Embers flying around in the wind looked more like small fireballs,” Bernabe said.
It was when she had left Coffey Park and was stuck in traffic that she began to panic.
“I was terrified. There were explosions almost every moment for several minutes and by the time I got to Barnes Road, I thought we were all going to die in our cars, or die trying to escape,” she said.
All she could do was sit in her car and hope that the traffic would move, and she would make it out alive. Both sides of the road were on fire and Bernabe decided to use her last resort. She called every contact in her phone, praying to reach someone, but had no such luck. The cell towers were down.
It was a matter of life or death, and at what felt like the last minute, the cars in front of her moved and Bernabe escaped for the final time. She drove until she couldn’t see fire.
“I wandered around alone in my car for a long time because we all ended up separated and in different towns,” she said.
She eventually met her aunt and uncle in the Dollar Tree parking lot on Sebastopol Road. The next day she moved into her boyfriend’s empty room at his parents’ house. The room is vacant while he’s away at Humboldt State University.
In the days that followed, Bernabe volunteered her time helping others affected by the fires. Compounding her troubles, she was in a car accident that wrecked her car.
“Right now, I just feel really scattered,” she said.
She plans on returning back to her neighborhood soon to see the full effect of the devastation.