The California Firefighter Searching the Rubble of His Own Home

Robert Nappi wasn't with his family when the flames came. But he went back after they escaped to find his wife's wedding ring.

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Oct 19 2017, 4:00am

Firefighters searching for a wedding ring in Santa Rosa, California on Monday. All photos by the author

Since erupting about a week and a half ago, the deadliest array of fires in California history has killed at least 42 people, destroyed more than 6,000 homes, and burned through more than 200,000 acres. Despite a coordinated response by firefighters drawn from across the state and around the country, several major blazes are still raging throughout Northern California.

In Santa Rosa, as across the state, the inferno came with little warning. Roughly 50 MPH winds drove flames 12 destructive miles in just over four hours on the night of October 8. When they arrived, it was late on a Sunday, and most residents were asleep. By the time I visited this past Monday, the fires in the area had been extinguished, but ash continued to drift down from the gray sky like snow, the inferno leaving behind mostly only chimneys and the scorched skeletons of vehicles. The flames had been so intense that cars were overturned, metal liquified, and bricks pulverized into sand.

But the destruction wasn't total—the flames burned capriciously, sometimes wiping out one side of a street and leaving the other completely untouched. Santa Rosa's Coffey Park neighborhood was largely deserted, though the stench of what one assumed to be rotting flesh was overwhelming—at least 19 deaths had been confirmed in the city as of this past Friday. As I made my way through the wreckage, I caught sight of a crew of firefighters crouching in the ruins of a leveled home, sifting the ashes through a screen. They were clearly searching for something tiny.

That's when I spoke with Robert Nappi, a 35-year-old volunteer firefighter from the Rancho Adobe Fire District. He was directing the hunt, and revealed that this was his own home—and that he was looking for his wife's wedding wing.

Here's what he had to say.

A car overturned in Coffey Park, Santa Rosa

VICE: How did the ring get lost—just the chaos of the blaze?
Robert Nappi: My wife takes it off when she sleeps. It was 2:20 in the morning when she had to evacuate. She just grabbed my daughter and ran.

So you weren't here to fight this fire yourself?
No, I was away on another call. I wasn't thinking about my house. There were multiple fires in the county. We were doing evacuations on Sonoma Mountain at the time, making sure the fire didn't jump the road and reach the mountainside.

When did you learn your own home was destroyed?
I heard Coffey Park was affected the next day. I had a friend drive through the area on Monday. He told me, "Your house is gone—the whole neighborhood."

It was a real shock. I really didn't think the fire would make it over here. But it's not just me that was affected; it's everybody else around me too. I'm not the only one. I'm nobody special.

Robert Nappi (left, in tan coat) searching for his wife's ring

Does it help that you're not alone—that this is a national story many Americans are concerned about?
It doesn't matter. Even if I was the only one, it's just the hand I was dealt. It's a big deal, but at the same time, it's a lot of stuff that's replaceable. My family got out safe, and that's all I care about. I've seen fire victims before. I don't even want to think about it. As firefighters, we're used to saying, "Sorry for your loss." Now, it's my turn.

Did anything survive the fire that you managed to recover?
There are a few broken dishes. Nothing usable. We have a two-year-old daughter, and one of the things that really gets me is she just started preschool and she's been making little paintings and bringing them home. That's the stuff you can't replace.

Will you rebuild here, or are you done with this area?
Yes. We have insurance. We'll rebuild.

The Tubbs fire blazing outside Santa Rosa

These fires seem to be getting worse. Why not move to an area that's less of a fire hazard?
The wind is the thing that got us. The wind, and the fact that the resources were short. If we didn't have as many fires going at the same time—that's what got us. Everybody was trying to keep structure, but the dispatch was so overwhelmed and so was law enforcement. We had every volunteer in the county getting tapped, but even so, when we were fighting a fire in Roseland, there was just one other engine company with us for three or four hours. We only had 318 gallons of water on our rig. We lost 30 structures on that hill. Considering how many resources got punched out though, everybody did a pretty good job.

Whether you find the ring or not, what's your next move?
I'm going back to work. I don't know what to expect anymore. My wife says, "Slow down." I just want to keep working. Work is a comfort zone. It's your second family. There's support all the way from the Battalion chief down to the firefighter rank. Everybody: "Whatever you need man." I'm not used to that. I'm used to giving help.

Was it hard accepting that help, even with everything you're going through?
You know, I think that's been the most challenging part of this whole thing—accepting help from others. But, the guys told me, this is the time to take it. If you're ever going to take help in your life, it's now. I guess they're right.

Follow Roc Morin's project collecting dreams from around the globe at World Dream Atlas.

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