Eight weeks after a wildfire gutted his family’s home in Santa Rosa, California, Dr. Antonio Wong was in surgery Tuesday morning when his former neighbors in Southern California began blowing up his phone with texts.
The Thomas fire, fanned by fierce Santa Ana winds, had blazed through Wong’s former Ventura County neighborhood, taking his family’s previous home with it.
“At first I thought, there’s no way that my house can burn down,” Wong told The Santa Rosa Press Democrat. “It doesn’t seem possible. I just had a house burn down.”
But his former neighbors told him they’d seen the house, which Wong still owned, go up in flames. Wong later confirmed the bad news himself.
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An anesthesiologist who studied at UC Berkeley, UC San Francisco and Stanford University, Wong moved his family to Santa Rosa in California’s Bay Area in July 2016 to live closer to his family, the newspaper reported. After renting for a time, the family bought a house about six months ago.
In October, the glow of the oncoming Tubbs fire alerted Wong’s 19-year-old son, who woke him and his wife, according to KTLA. The family gathered their pets as the smoke thickened, then fled as firefighters issued voluntary evacuation orders.
“We didn’t take all the stuff you would take if you thought your house was going to burn,” Wong told the station. “So, we took a couple changes of clothes and our IDs, and that’s it.”
As they drove off, a neighbor’s pine tree burst into flames.
“It looked like a torch,” Wong said. “That’s when we realized we might not come back.”
The Tubbs fire ultimately burned more than 36,000 acres in Sonoma and Napa counties, killing 22 people and destroying 5,300 buildings, according to CalFire. It was the most destructive fire in California history, reported The San Francisco Chronicle.
Wong’s home was left in ashes. The wildfire also destroyed two cars and a motorcycle, KTLA reported. After living apart for several weeks, the family reunited at a rental home in Santa Rosa while Wong began making preparations to rebuild his second home.
“It was starting to feel like … we’re going to start rebuilding; we’re getting back on our feet,” Wong told the station. And one thought comforted him despite the heavy workload ahead. “Well, I still have that house down there,” Wong told himself.
Then came the wind-driven Thomas fire, which began Dec. 4 and has burned 269,000 acres and destroyed more than 1,000 buildings, according to CalFire. The blaze was 40 percent contained by Sunday.
Wong and his wife, Pratima, had purchased their Ventura County home shortly after their 2003 marriage and had lived there until 2008 before leaving for jobs in Seattle and Reno before returning to Northern California, according to The Santa Rosa Press Democrat. They had rented the home out with thoughts of returning some day in retirement.
“We were happy there,” Antonio Wong said. “It was a wonderful house.”
Their renters escaped the fire, fortunately, but the house was destroyed as the family watched the destruction on television.
“It was surreal, more like numb, you know,” Pratima Wong told KGO through tears. “Did this really happen to us? For the second time, it’s a lot harder.”
Now the Wongs are not sure how much they can afford to rebuild, especially after discovering both homes were underinsured, KGO reported.
While some have offered financial help to the family, the Wongs encourage donors to give to www.cafirefoundation.org, which benefits California firefighters and fire victims, the station reported.