Our Miraculous Escape from the 2017 California Firestorm
The Rosenthal family just barely made it out alive. An Aish.com exclusive.
From the window of his office in Davis, California, Justin Rosenthal sees thick plumes of smoke from the “Camp” wildfire now ravaging northern California. With at least 70 people dead and 6,000 homes destroyed, this eerily echoes Justin’s own harrowing escape from a northern California firestorm just one year ago.
It was Sukkot 2017, with Justin and his family enjoying holiday dinner in their sukkah in Santa Rosa, a city of 150,000, near the Napa wine region. “That evening, we had a poignant family discussion about the sukkah as a temporary dwelling,” Justin tells Aish.com. “We spoke about the bamboo roof symbolizing the transient nature of materialism. And we talked about what is truly important: faith, love, and family.”
The winds were intensely strong that night, so the Rosenthal family – Justin, his wife Shacharit, 18-year-old twins Ari and Elias, and 16-year-old daughter Moriah – went back inside their house. When a power blackout hit around midnight – due to high winds impacting power lines – everyone went to sleep.
At 3:30 am, Eli heard a fire truck roaring through the neighborhood, sounding an alert: “Evacuate NOW!” It was to be the final warning.
One gaze out the window confirmed the worst. A downed electric transformer had ignited the parched landscape suffering one of the worst droughts in California history. Winds of 60 mph fanned the flames and carried them at high speed. Emergency personnel were caught by surprise, leaving residents virtually no time to escape.
The Rosenthals (left to right: Elias, Ari, Justin, Shacharit, Daniel, Moriah)
Eli quickly woke up the others and there no time to take anything – heirlooms, photos, or IDs. Within 25 seconds – with no electricity, in the pitch dark – the Rosenthals made their way downstairs to the garage. “We touched the garage door and could feel the intense heat,” Justin says. “But the only option, if we didn't want to die in this inferno, was to make a run for it.”
With an electric garage door – and no electricity – the escape almost never started. Fortunately, Justin knew to pull the emergency cable, but he first needed to find it in the dark, then contend with manually lifting the heavy garage door.
“We opened the door and saw the entire neighborhood was an inferno,” Justin says.
To compound the situation, the entrance to their long driveway had an electric security gate. Without the key for manually opening the gate, they were trapped. “We made a mad dash back into the house,” Justin says. They groped around in the dark to find the right drawer, and as precious moments ticked by, they found the key.
Shacharit quickly unlocked the gate, jumped back in the car, and the Rosenthals pulled out – the flames mere seconds from igniting their house.
Justin focused on navigating the obstacle course of flaming tree branches falling in the road, along with thick smoke and walls of flame that made it nearly impossible to see. “We didn't think we were going to make it,” he says. “As we drove through the flames, we all said Shema.”
They called Justin’s elderly parents who were living in a nearby retirement community. Finally, after many attempts, they answered the phone. They’d had no warning whatsoever, and already some of the community’s buildings were on fire. “By the time we arrived, it was impossible to reach my parents through the wall of flames,” Justin recalls. “So my parents stayed shelter in place. We had no choice but to drive away. We lost contact with them and didn't know if they'd survived.” (They did.)
The Rosenthals, pajamas and all, headed south to Berkeley, where Justin’s sister helped them decompress. Justin reports: “The sun was coming up and the first thing the kids wanted to do was find a sukkah, shake the lulav, and thank God for having survived.”
Entrance to the Rosenthals’ home in Santa Rosa
When the Rosenthals went back to examine the wreckage, they discovered that not all their neighbors had survived. In Santa Rosa alone, 22 people were dead, 4,500 homes destroyed, 100,000 people displaced, and untold billions in damage. “Many of the deaths occurred with people inside their garage, unable to escape,” Justin says. “Either they didn't know how to use the emergency cable, or didn't have the strength to lift the garage door.”
Only one item miraculously survived the inferno: the Rosenthals’ etrog.
The Rosenthals’ home was completely obliterated. From the intensity of the heat, their second car had completely melted. Only one item miraculously survived the inferno: the Rosenthals’ etrog. Discovered unscathed amidst a totally melted and burned sukkah, it symbolized the Jewish people’s heart and faith during challenging times.
The Rosenthals’ daughter Moriah had her own incredible experience. Having attended Camp Stone in Pennsylvania, she’d participated in an educational program where she made a list of her most meaningful possessions, ready to take anywhere, anytime. Justin explains: “They described this as a personal ‘Moshiach Bag,’ in the sense of being ready to leave everything behind on a moment’s notice, to greet Moshiach.”
Moriah took that lesson to heart, and upon returning home from camp, packed a backpack with her diary, a tzedakah box, book of Psalms, prayer book, and a few family photos. She then hung it on her bedroom door. Then, on the night of the fire, in those fateful moments before rushing out, Moriah grabbed her Moshiach Bag, which (along with the tefillin her brother Ari grabbed) became the family's most important possessions. Moriah’s “essential items” now occupy a prominent place on the Rosenthals’ living room mantel.
“When the moment comes, what will you grab?” Justin asks.
Saved from the blaze: Moriah’s Moshiach Bag and its contents.
Justin was raised as a non-religious Jew, “in synagogue only once, for my Bar Mitzvah,” he says. When he met Shacharit, who had grown up Reform and become observant, Justin needed to catch up on Judaism. So in the mid-1990s, he attended Aish HaTorah’s Discovery seminar in San Francisco. “My reaction was: Where has this been my whole life?” Justin says. “So I became an ardent reader of Aish.com and haven't stopped since. I’ve always shared the content with my children. Aish.com has made a world of difference.”
Prior to the fire, the Rosenthal children attended public school, while maintaining a strong Jewish identity. “They really love Judaism,” Justin says. “At high school they started a Jewish Club to teach other kids.”
Events of the past year have greatly impacted the Rosenthal’s Jewish life. After the fire, they relocated to Oakland, where they’d already been involved with Beth Jacob Congregation. Shul members opened their homes, and the local Jewish high school immediately accepted the children, infusing the family’s Jewish life. Today Eli is studying at the Aish Gesher program in Jerusalem. His twin brother Ari attends Yeshivat Har Etzion and plans to become a rabbi.
Total devastation: aerial view of a cul-de-sac in Santa Rosa, October 2017
Today, 15 months after the fire, Santa Rosa is a city in crisis. The flames were so intense that they melted the plastic water pipes embedded three feet underground – destroying plumbing infrastructure and releasing chemicals into the soil and water supply. The federal government has since removed much of the toxic soil, leaving massive empty pits where beautiful homes once stood.
The firestorm is never from the minds of Justin and Shacharit who speak publicly, sharing their experience and promoting home safety. "In a group of 100 people, perhaps one knows how to open the garage manually,” Justin says. “In event of a natural disaster, we're woefully unprepared."
Besides the need for flashlights, smoke detectors, and an evacuation plan, Justin recommends making electronic copies of important documents and uploading them to the cloud. It’s a lesson he discovered too late. “All our documents were destroyed, and we had to spend countless hours in government offices establishing our own identification,” he laments.
The 2017 Santa Rosa fire was not the first for Justin’s parents. In 1991 they were living in Oakland when a huge firestorm broke out that killed 25 people and destroyed 3,000 homes. “Most of the deaths occurred on my parents' street, and they were the last ones to get out alive,” Justin says. “The smoke was so thick that they couldn't tell which way was downhill. So my father put the car in neutral and let gravity guide them. He needed to keep banging into the curb to gauge where he was going.”
As for the Rosenthals’ future, they still await settlement from the insurance company. “With so many natural disasters, these companies are facing financial ruin,” Justin says. “The concern is that they will become insolvent and not pay anything out.”
Today Justin works in Davis, California, where the current inferno has claimed over 50 lives and 8,800 structures, making it the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in the state's history. One of Justin’s colleague's is searching for her missing family; her uncle is already declared dead.
Every day, Justin is grateful for his family’s survival. “Had my son not heard the warning,” he says, “we would have slept right through it.”