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Heroic Sugarloaf Ridge State Park manager ‘just doing his job’ during Sonoma Valley fire evacuations

Gratitude: See our special coverage of heartwarming stories following the Sonoma County fires here.

John Roney went knowingly into the fire.

But the Sugarloaf Ridge State Park manager shyly says he was “just doing his job” when he alerted Sugarloaf campers and staff to the swiftly moving fire roaring toward them that fateful Sunday evening of Oct. 8. But doing that good deed one better, Roney took it upon himself to go out of his jurisdiction, running door-to-door with a bullhorn, evacuating homeowners up and down Adobe Canyon Road while the fire raged around them.

Roney, 55, has been the park’s manager for the past 5½ years, after helping the Sonoma Ecology Center, which operates Sugarloaf, get the park reopened in June 2012. He lives in Santa Rosa, near Annadel State Park, and casually hopped in his car that Sunday when the call came in about a downed tree blocking Adobe Canyon Road near the entrance to the park. But reaching the intersection at Highway 12, Roney was met by a fire crew and informed that there were multiple fires burning and that resources were stretched beyond capacity. Roney jumped into action, knowing he’d need to clear the road and evacuate the park in short order.

Over the course of the next few hours, Roney –– a retired Army colonel who served four years on active duty and in the reserves for 26 –– proceeded to evacuate 50 to 60 campers scattered throughout a dozen campsites, as well as two camp managers on duty that evening. Finished with the camp evacuation around 1 a.m., he was joined by state ranger Ellen Brem from Annadel State Park. The two learned from firefighters that there were no resources to evacuate the private homes on Adobe Canyon Road, so the pair set out to tackle the job themselves.

“The canyon is notorious for spotty cell reception,” said Roney. “I’d received a couple of alerts and had spoken with firefighters but other than that, we had no real idea of the scope of what was happening.” As Roney made his way up and down the canyon, blaring his car horn, pounding on doors and shouting through a bullhorn, his only thought was getting people away from what was becoming a blazing firestorm.

The dozens of startled homeowners, hearing Roney’s alerts, grabbed what they could and ran for their lives.

Richard Wenn and Laurie Maak were among them. Wenn, 62, works as a technology futurist in San Francisco, while Maak, 66, is a semi-retired consultant for the same company. The couple had just returned home from a weeklong vacation, and hadn’t even unpacked their suitcases when they threw them back into their cars and tore down the road to safety.

“We were tired from our trip and, when the power went out around 9 p.m., decided to call it a night and head to bed,” said Maak. “The howling wind wouldn’t let me sleep so I was listening to a podcast when I noticed a firetruck drive past.”

The truck’s lights were on but the lack of sirens kept Maak from worrying. Later, as three cars, and then four headed down Adobe Canyon, she started to pay a little more attention.

“I woke Richard up and he assured me that there was no cause for alarm,” said Maak. “He’s lived in the canyon for years longer than I, so I took him at his word and nodded off shortly thereafter.”

Gratitude: See our special coverage of heartwarming stories following the Sonoma County fires here.

Big mistake, Maak admits now.

As Maak and Wenn slept, the blaze continued to grow, swallowing homes in the canyon. Maak later learned that at midnight, an elderly neighbor had banged on their door attempting to wake them to flee. Neither Maak nor Wenn heard the ruckus and the neighbor, seeing just one of the couple’s cars instead of the usual two, mistakenly believed they’d already fled.

It wasn’t until a few more hours had passed that Roney did a second sweep up Adobe Canyon and awoke the soundly sleeping couple. “Richard can sleep through anything so I had a hard time waking him once I heard John yelling, ‘Fire! Evacuate!’ ” said Maak. “I hollered back, ‘Thank you, we hear you.’ We grabbed our bags, my computer and purse and ran.”

What they found on the other side of the door was staggering –– fire all around including their enormous woodpile –– which was ablaze. Wenn and Maak were certain their house would burn to the ground but, grateful for Roney’s efforts, hustled down the hill to safety.

Until they were contacted as part of this story, Maak had no idea who woke them that night.

“Now I know who to thank for saving our lives,” she said.

The humble Roney will likely shrug off the accolades. A Boy Scout in his youth, Roney said he never felt especially threatened or in danger that evening.

“There really wasn’t time for fear. I had a chainsaw for fallen trees and figured I couldn’t go out the back way –– or run –– if I was trapped. My biggest concern was for the homeowners,” he said.

Luckily for Wenn and Maak, their lives were saved thanks to Roney and their home spared because of some improbable but fortuitous preparation. According to Maak, Wenn had recently weed-whacked and power washed the hillside behind the house in anticipation of planting a large succulent garden.

“I thought the power washing was a crazy idea at the time but that move saved our house,” said Maak. “More importantly, John Roney –– he saved our bacon. I can’t wait to thank him.”