A little after noon on Monday, residents of the Third Gate Road area heard a loud boom near the junction of Third Gate and Sherwood Road north of Willits.
A few minutes later neighbors were calling neighbors as a plume of black smoke arose from the vicinity of the explosion.
Soon, Sheriff Matt Kendall, fearing a fast-moving wildfire on the hundred degree day, issued a warning for residents to evacuate the area.
Most of the sprawling neighborhood, later estimated at about 4,300 people, heeded the warning in what the Sheriff would later describe as one of the most orderly evacuations he’d ever seen was underway as the fire spread rapidly north from its origin.
Fortuitously, residents of the area had practiced an evacuation just a few weeks earlier, aware that large emergency vehicles would be arriving at about the same time that residents were trying to leave in the event of a fire.
Subsequent reports, including a passing reference in our on-line edition, had it that a 47 year old woman had stubbornly refused to leave the area in defiance of the Sheriff’s evacuation order.
On Wednesday we got a call from Angela ‘Angie’ Saunders who had seen our on-line report (and others) and was certain that she was the 47-year old woman referred to.
And she had evacuated.
“It was very scary when the whole thing started,” Saunders explained. “I got a call from a neighbor and posted some information on my facebook page. I first heard about it through phone calls and text messages from local friends.
“Our house is on a high point in the area and you can see quite a ways in all directions. We saw the black smoke to the southeast. So I started calling other neighbors and they were already evacuating. One neighbor told me they heard a big boom and thought maybe a tree fell, or an earthquake or something. And then she saw a plume of smoke. So she evacuated right away, around 12:30 PM Monday.
“I first chose not to leave right away because I have 13 dogs and my SUV would not start. The battery was completely dead. The Sheriff’s department and the fire department used two different jumpers to try to restart my vehicle and it would not start — at all.
“That was the only way I could have reasonably evacuated with my dogs.”
Most of Mrs. Saunders’ dogs are chihuahuas, and imagine the cacophony!
“All 13 of these dogs are my pets, my babies. They are the best! They even survived the 2017 fire that happened up here. They have already been through this.
“I asked the officers if I could take my ATV which has an attachment which holds dog crates. The officer told me I could do that if that’s all I had. I rushed around gathering up my dogs and released my chickens.
“Also I had to recover my mother-in-law’s cats at the parcel next door. She wasn’t home. But when I got there all her cats fled because they are her cats, not mine. She could have put them in cages, but I could not.
“I departed on the ATV with my load of dogs. It was little after 3pm. I was going down the road with the ATV and the dogs and a friend came up. I loaded up as many dogs as possible into his vehicle and got back on my ATV.
“I had two remaining dogs with me on the ATV. I couldn’t give all 13 dogs to my friend because one of my dogs doesn’t get along with the others and I had to keep them separated. There I was, stuck in the situation, trying to avoid a dogfight.
“I rode the ATV to the bottom of Third Gate at Sherwood Road. A CHP officer was directing traffic there and saw me and said, ‘Where do you think you’re going?’ I said I was evacuating. And he said, ‘Not on that. Get off and walk.’ Just like that. He would not allow an ATV on the roadway. He was being very strict.
“I had to park my ATV and get off. He wouldn’t even allow me to ride it back up and drop it off at my house. I probably used some language that I shouldn’t have used. But I did as he said and walked down the road with my two remaining dogs.”
Eventually Ms. Saunders’ friend came back and picked her up with her two remaining dogs.
“I am now staying with friends in southern Willits and hopefully the house is ok and the ATV has not been stolen and I will be able to retrieve it when we are allowed back in.
“I saw in your online edition and a couple of other places that people were saying that a 47-year-old woman had refused to leave. Maybe somebody could say that I refused, at first. But that’s not what happened. I would have evacuated without any problem except I couldn’t leave without my dogs, my babies. I think anybody in that situation would do the same thing.
“If my car had started none of this would have been a problem, I would have loaded up my dogs and evacuated like everyone else. I even notified my neighbors who do not have an actual building but they live in the woods — you can probably guess what they do [laughs]. They didn’t take it seriously and I told then, No, it’s bad, you have to get out NOW. But they wouldn’t listen to me and I heard that they stayed up there.
“There’s a rumor that the fire was caused by a propane tank associated with a meth lab exploding. But that could be just a Willits rumor.
“Sunday and Monday were very hot. The night before I was outside putting gas in our generator and the winds were blowing from east to west and it was hot even at night. After midnight my temperature gauge said it was 80 degrees. The next morning I got up early and it was already up into the mid-80s.
“There are only three parcels on Big John Road in the area of the explosion. Big John Road goes off to the right as you head up Third Gate Road. My husband and I drive that area regularly and it’s got a great view. God only knows what it will look like when we get back.”
By Wednesday night Highway 101 was re-opened. Thursday as conditions improved reports had it that 25 structures were destroyed and 20 were damaged; repopulation of the area began, but the Third Gate area was still closed.
Ms. Saunders said she’d let us know what it looks like when she returns.