Marcos Bretón

With a bracelet from their daughter, they fled flames, and celebrate Christmas with loss and love

The Robys, Pam and Don, had spent every Christmas for almost 40 years in the Santa Rosa home where they raised their three daughters. Their house was 1,600 square feet of memories of their girls, their ancestors and the life they have shared since they were two kids in love who married in the tumultuous year of 1969.


Pam is a retired corporate nurse, Don a retired insurance agent. They had a beautiful outdoor deck that provided a daily sense of tranquility. Pam, 69, and Don, 70, were surrounded by trees and, though their home was technically in the Santa Rosa city limits, they felt as if they lived in the country.

The Robys accumulated a lot of stuff in the nearly half century since they wed, almost all of which was incinerated just two months ago, along with their home, their memories, family photos, heirlooms, mementos and Pam’s car. Save for a precious few items, everything else was reduced to ash in the pre-dawn hours of Oct. 9 as the Tubbs Fire raged through their Santa Rosa neighborhood and cut through the heart of Northern California’s wine country. It was the most destructive wildfire California has ever experienced.

Now the Robys are here, in Sacramento. Their rented Arden Park Vista house is their home for Christmas, this year and maybe next year depending upon how long it takes to rebuild on the plot of land that had been their home since 1977.

“This isn’t our normal Christmas, but everyone is coming home and we’re trying to do a lot of stuff to make up for what happened,” Pam said this week. “Our (new) neighbors here in Sacramento have been very nice. We’re in a really nice neighborhood. People are putting out decorations. We’re just three or four blocks from our son-in-law and grandchildren.”

“I think it’s going to be great,” Don said.

For this family, relishing Christmas is not an act of denial. The Robys have lost much more in their lives. They have temporarily lived in Sacramento before and for more profound reasons, with greater loss, than the destruction of their family home.

The love and the loss, the bitter and the sweet, the blessings and the tragedies are all accepted by this family as a part of life. It doesn’t mean there are no tears or regrets. There have been. Still, for them, Christmas means that life, for as long as they have it, is for living and loving. It’s for focusing on gratitude for what they have, as opposed to regrets for what they have lost.

But yes, the losses have been great.

The Robys don’t deny the numbing shock of fleeing a natural disaster. “It was devastating,” Pam said.

The Robys had just finished remodeling their kitchen and bathroom. “We got it just the way we liked it,” Pam said.

In the pre-dawn hours of Oct. 9, Pam was in bed reading her book club book, ironically titled: “Little Fires Everywhere.” A call came from a friend at 1:30 a.m. about the Tubbs Fire. The power went out. Their dogs became agitated.

“I went out into the middle of the street and looked north,” Don said. “A half mile away you could see a glow and I would visualize the flames. It was a really eerie glowing in the horizon…I thought, ‘We’re getting the heck out of this place.’ 

The time frame, from the moment a friend called to when they fled, was roughly 10 minutes. They received a robocall from the city of Santa Rosa at 1:41 a.m.

“We couldn’t find our flashlights,” Don said. “We didn’t have an evacuation plan.”

“We thought we were coming back,” Pam said.

The Robys didn’t think fires burning in nearby Calistoga would reach them. Later, when the shock subsided, that they put it together: Fierce, dry winds that night – winds unlike any like they could recall – had pushed flames toward them as embers became airborne and caused multiple fires. They jumped across Highway 101 and bore down. They destroyed every home in their neighborhood.

“I only had time to reach into my top drawer and take a special bracelet that had been given to me by one of our daughters,” Pam said. “Thank God I did.”

The bracelet is connected to why the Robys are in Sacramento again. It was given to them by their late daughter Shannon, a Sacramento resident who died of breast cancer six years ago at the age of 40. When you have no time to think or act, sometimes you reach for what is most important – and that’s what Pam did.

Shannon was the mother of very small children when she died. For this family, it was a loss for which there are no words. The last time the Robys rented a home in Sacramento was to be near their daughter in her final moments.

It’s why, in the aftermath of the Tubbs Fire, friends who knew Pam told her they wondered why she wasn’t more upset than she was. “I would question myself and wonder why I wasn’t more devastated,” she said. “People expected me to be crying and depressed and I wasn’t.

“I was trying to figure it out and, I think from losing a child, that is the pinnacle of grief. Everything else in life pales in comparison.”

The Robys returned to Sacramento as they rebuild to be near Shannon’s husband, Josh, and their grandchildren. Unlike many of their neighbors who still have children in Santa Rosa schools, the Robys are retired, have grown children and the freedom to regroup whereever they wished before they rebuild.

“Coming to Sacramento was a no-brainer because of our son-in-law and grandkids,” Don said.

But it’s still bittersweet, Pam said, because the last time they were here was when their daughter had cancer.

They spend their days now going to the sporting events of their grandkids. They stay in contact with Santa Rosa friends. They hope their insurance will be sufficient for them to break ground on a new home next year and possibly return home a year after that. They feel blessed to have enough insurance to cover it all. They feel blessed to be alive. A daughter from Oregon and another from Chicago are coming to Sacramento to join them for Christmas.

They lost all family photos of their girls when they were little. They lost family heirlooms, such as a letter from Don’s great-great grand father. They lost 100-year-old family Christmas ornaments. That’s what they miss. But everything else? “I lost a crock pot and bought a new one,” Pam said. “You realize you don’t need all that stuff.”

What they were able to retrieve was a smoke-tinged Nativity scene and three Christmas ornament angels that were in the rafters of their burned detached garage.

These now adorn their Sacramento house. Somehow, Don’s Toyota Tacoma truck was unscathed despite being parked in front of their house. Why and how? Who knows?

This family is focused on rebuilding and loving each other.

“Our life really hasn’t changed at all,” Don said. “This is just a big inconvenience. “

Marcos Bretón: 916-321-1096, @MarcosBreton

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