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‘Get out, get out now’: Kenwood family tells their tale

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.

They turned right on Lawndale Road, right again on Shultz Road.

And there it was, or more accurately, there it was not.

Wrought iron garden furniture smoldered. Where there was once a canopy of madrones and bays, the trees were now smoking black sticks. The main house – built in the 1930s – their cottage, the barn, three vehicles – all of it gone.

They headed to a friend’s guesthouse in Healdsburg. All they had was the clothes they were wearing. They were just happy and grateful to be alive, and appreciative to have shelter when they knew so many others did not.

“We have had a softer landing than most,” Kendra said. They let Elizabeth and Liam know their home was gone. Paul’s brother brought their mom, Agnes Rose, to his home in San Francisco. It was over. They would just have to start again.

On Day Five, as she calls it, several days after the fire, Kendra was at her commercial kitchen in Petaluma, prepping for the farmers markets where the Farmers Wife serves grilled sandwiches in San Francisco on Saturdays and in Marin on Sundays.

“I have to work. We have to try to be normal,” Kendra said, wearing the red California bear flag T-shirt she had been sleeping in the night they fled, that she had just washed at a laundermat before coming to work. She felt like she should be helping, but for now there are too many unknowns.

“I should be at a shelter making food for people right now,” she said. And she will. Eventually. “We have to pace ourselves because there are going to be needs for a long time.”

On Day Two she had gone to Costco to buy socks, underwear and toothbrushes for her family. They were trying to adjust, like so many others. Alaina knew through social media that 72 kids at her school, Rincon Valley Middle where she is an 8th grader, didn’t have their homes any more either. She and her friends are disappointed school is still cancelled. They need to be with each other, teens living the same trauma.

Life had been on a huge upswing for the Kollings. Paul is finally approaching full recovery, and is reviving his Nana Mae’s Organics business. He was only now about to get his applesauce and juices back on the shelves at Whole Foods and Oliver’s.

In September the San Francisco Chronicle, in a two-page spread with photos and a recipe, called Kendra’s the Farmer’s Wife sandwiches “an earth-shattering meal” and “what might very well be one of the best sandwiches in the world.” After a very successful summer that included grilling cheese at Outside Lands and Bottle Rock, the article resulted in a landslide of new business. Now the fire took not only two catering trucks, but the Igloos, stoves, serve ware and other equipment stored in the barn.

The Kollings had gone on a family trip east to bring their older children to college. Not wanting to lug too much on the plane, Kendra told the kids she would mail them their cold weather clothes. The packed and addressed boxes with jackets, sweaters, gloves, and Liam’s debate team sport coat were sitting by the door awaiting a trip to the post office. Now, of course, gone. Kendra said their college friends are making a project of getting them each everything they need, and she smiles. She smiles frequently, so many reasons to be thankful. Her eyes fill with tears.

She sits on a high stool in the stainless steel kitchen, sipping from an almost-empty gallon size plastic Crystal Geyser water bottle, saying she noticed her skin was awfully dry and then remembered it was because she doesn’t have any face cream. She doesn’t have a lot of things, and she’s mostly OK with it.

“I’m not going to lie, I liked my clothes,” she laughs. She feels bad about the hand-carved antique carosel horse that once belonged to Saralee Kunde. And Nana Mae’s needlepointed pillows. And the beautiful framed portraits of their children, she’ll always miss those. Paul’s Mom had given Elizabeth a rose topaz and diamond heirloom ring as a graduation present, and wisely they had not let her take it with her to college. Who knew? It is the one thing they most wish they still had. But they have a plan.

They will sift the ash for it.

They will rebuild.

They will continue on.

They are still the Kolling family.

They are still alive. And so very grateful.