A&E Exclusive Updated Coverage: California Wildfires, ‘Our Store Was Ground Zero’

Dennis Wilkinson of Santa Rosa, California-based D&S Awards tells A&E of the horrors he witnessed...

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California wildfires

Although it’s been several months since wildfires devastated the rolling hills of California, its impact is still being felt by awards and engraving retailers in the area.

“We watched the fire at 1:30 a.m., a block from our house, go across the ridge a quarter mile away and down into Santa Rosa,” recalls Dennis Wilkinson. The wildfire started in Calistoga late that night, October 9, 2017, jumping 12 miles into his town in just three hours when 90 mph winds picked up. Wilkinson’s home barely dodged danger. His store, D&S Awards, did not have the same fate.

“We were just lucky that the wind didn’t shift for a few days,” he explains. Most people just got a knock on the door from neighbors with only 10 minutes to grab kids, pets, and anything else they could manage to get out, many leaving in pajamas. Because of the way the streets were in the hills, some had no choice but to drive into the fire to get out and some cars had plastic pieces melted off or were on fire as they came out.

“Our store was ground zero, with many stores within a couple hundred yards burned completely to the ground,” he says. “With the fire being wind-blown, it was so hot that not a single fire safe survived and every foundation must be removed, with the lots being scraped to clean dirt before anything can be done.”

He adds, “Our building survived mainly because it is in an industrial part of town next to neighborhoods where many buildings are made of concrete. We were evacuated with no power or gas for 10 days and we were closed for a total of three weeks before we could get cleaned up enough to open.”

He reports that 1,300 homes burned just two blocks from the shop in Coffee Park and 700 in Fountaingrove up the hill.

For weeks after, Wilkinson describes, the smoke was so thick that he had to wear masks all the time and the sky had an eerie darkness, even in the middle of the day.

The cleanup is underway now, but “most people are finding that they were very much under insured and the rebuild process will take a minimum of five years.

“With the updated building codes from the past 30 years, it is going to be a real issue for people to afford to rebuild. Many of the under-insured, older folks that don’t want to go through the rebuild process have already relocated out of state.

“(It’s expected that) this trend will continue in the coming months and years.”


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