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Fire survivor, resident with home intact wrestle with guilt

SANTA ROSA, Calif. — Residents who evacuated from wildfires raging in California's wine country are thankful they survived or kept their homes, but gnawed by guilt about the fate of their neighbours .
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SANTA ROSA, Calif. — Residents who evacuated from wildfires raging in California's wine country are thankful they survived or kept their homes, but gnawed by guilt about the fate of their neighbours.

Jeremy Adams said Thursday that shifting winds, a little water from his hose and some luck spared his home in Santa Rosa from the inferno. Most of the other homes in the area were destroyed.

Drive past his corner house, and nothing remains for almost a mile.

"That first night it was just a horrible feeling. Like why me?" Adams said. "I still feel that. That guilty feeling. Why do we get spared and them not? To see them come back to what they have, or don't have, was pretty horrifying."

Adams and his wife walked around what's left of their neighbourhood early Monday, but now they stay away.

"It's just too sad," he said.

Ryan Nelson lives in the same neighbourhood and fears his elderly neighbours, one of whom has multiple sclerosis, didn't make it out of their home. He wonders whether he could have done more to help.

As his house filled with smoke, Nelson ran over to his neighbours' house and pounded on their doors and windows but wasn't able to get their attention. He didn't kick the door down, thinking he'd have time to come back and help them.

"We're in the middle of the city, so that's never crossed anybody's mind here in terms of everything being a total fire loss," Nelson said.

Nelson was going through the ruins of his house on Wednesday to try to find his grandfather's rifles, including an M-1 carbine from World War II, that he kept in a gun safe.

He found only pieces. His neighbours' home was also a total loss.

Nelson knows the man only as Manjeet and said he has never met or seen his wife, who had multiple sclerosis. Manjeet, who was in his 70s, has no car and is fairly "reclusive," Nelson said, seen occasionally walking to the nearby Trader Joe's or elsewhere in the neighbourhood in a blue or white turban and sandals. He rarely answered the door if Nelson knocked.

"Nobody ever sees him or talks to him, but when you do see him he's got everything in the world to talk about," Nelson said.

Nelson said he awoke to the sound of a frightened dog scratching at the door.

The dog followed him as he went to alert neighbours, but he lost track of her and doesn't know whether she survived and was rescued.

Nelson said he underestimated the fire.

"My regret isn't doing more to try to save anything, it was more I feel like I could've forced entry into their house and pulled them out of bed or done something more to help him get out," Nelson said.

Jonathan J. Cooper, The Associated Press



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