It took several rings for Kendra Kolling’s cell phone to wake her. As she fumbled in the dark to retrieve the voicemail, her husband Paul’s cell sounded a second alarm and she knew then something was very, very wrong.
“Get out. Get out now. Fire is tearing through here and the winds are whipping,” her neighbor warned. “Get out!” Paul ran to get his 91-year-old mother from the main home on the 10-acre property in Kenwood that has been in the Kolling family for generations, while Kendra went to wake their 13-year-old daughter Alaina in their cottage, rousing her quickly, using a calm “mom voice,” trying not to scare her.
Kendra took the phones and, by instinct, remembered the chargers. She knew to wear hiking boots but didn’t take the time for socks. She clasped her mother’s crystal and pearl necklace around her neck. Once outside, she held on to Alaina and their cockapoo Teddy. Paul had grabbed his mother, who had prophetically dozed off with her clothes on, like a rag doll.
The husband and wife had two choices left to make: Which vehicles should they drive? And should they run back inside and save anything from the home they’d shared for more than 20 years?
“We chose life,” Kendra said.
She drove one of her three Mercedes Sprinters, vans for her pop-up restaurant and catering business, the Farmer’s Wife. Paul got behind the wheel of their daughter’s Suburu. “It would have been wiser to take another truck, but Elizabeth worked so hard to get that car. I didn’t want her to lose it.”
They wound down Shultz Road to Lawndale, the road where two years ago Paul, a farmer, survived a near fatal accident, removed from his car by the jaws of life. Driving home late, tired from working the apple harvest season, he hit a tree, breaking multiple bones and damaging his heart, resulting in eight surgeries and months in a rehabilitation hospital.
And now again on this road – this same Lawndale Road – they were fleeing for life. They turned left on Highway 12 toward Santa Rosa, amid a caravan of neighbors, and receive a phone invitation to go to a friend’s mother’s house in Rohnert Park. They arrived there along with two other families, this place they had never been, owned by a kind person they’ve never met, evacuees landing at this same refuge. Before she could rest Kendra knew she must let their older children, Elizabeth, 17, a freshman at Columbia University in New York, and Liam, 19, a sophomore at Middlebury College in Vermont, know that life has gone awry. It is later where her children are – she can’t let word reach them before they hear from Mom.
“We’re safe,” she texted them. “We evacuated. There’s a fire in Kenwood.” That was all she knew, and that was all that mattered.
“I almost lost my husband two years ago. They almost lost their father. Compared to that losing a house is not so bad,” she says.
They slept briefly and fitfully and were back out at dawn, headed toward home, wondering if they still had one. It was the earliest hours of the firestorm that would take so much from so many, and they were able to get back to Kenwood before first responders had set up the safety roadblocks to keep everyone off the Highway 12 corridor.