I t was almost midnight when Clementine Lee saw the flames.
Driving over the Cotati grade from San Francisco, Clementine and her friend and fellow face painter Stephanie Ventura noticed the bright light of fire stretching across the otherwise dark ridge above her home in northern Santa Rosa. Her heart jumped.
“Imagine an eclipse,” she explains, just days later. “But instead of the sun being blacked out and everything cast into darkness, you see a bright ribbon of fire blocking out the sight of anything along the top of that hill.”
Clementine pushed the accelerator to the floor. Minutes later, she swung off the highway onto the road to her home, only to be stopped at a sheriff’s roadblock and informed they could not proceed. “Too dangerous; nobody is going up this road,” the sheriff’s deputy said, brusque and impatient.
Her heart racing, Clementine started to drive on anyway, but the deputy screamed for her to stop. As he angrily approached the car, she lied and told him her teenage daughter was babysitting her two-year-old son in their home up the hill, and that she needed to wake them. The deputy, unmoved, began talking to someone else.
Just then, a resident in the area approached and told Stephanie about an alternate open route up to Clementine’s house. For a split second, as they pulled back onto the road and sped off, Clementine wondered if the deputy might shoot at them.
Before the fires, Clementine had loved returning to the house she and her husband Brian bought just nine months ago. There were oak trees, horses belonging to the neighbors, and lots of room to breathe. Their previous house had been cluttered and cramped, so they purged and brought only “the things that mattered” to the new place: their two dogs, hundreds of books and paintings, her kids’ artwork, and and the supplies and equipment for her business. Last April, eight ducks joined the family.
Clementine has lived most of her life in Santa Rosa, but she represents the type of resident that was already hanging on by a thread before the fire: a small business owner in a region with rising rents — Sonoma County rents had already climbed 48 percent in a six-year period ending in August, with vacancy rates hovering at 1-2 percent.
Still, it is home. Clementine and her husband Brian are raising three kids there—two daughters, Jovie and Wentir, ages 12 and 18, respectively, and their talkative two-year-old son, Leonidas. She employs Stephanie and eight other artists to paint faces — kids, grown-ups, anyone who wants to see and feel something new and delightful about themselves — at parties, festivals, and special events all over Sonoma County and beyond.
“I love my job," she says. “Because I am always around happy people.”
When she and Stephanie arrived at the house after racing through the police roadblock, Clementine exhaled. It was strangely calm, with no smoke, just the scent in the air. She conferred quickly with Brian and Wentir, describing what she'd seen from the highway and that the roads were blocked by police.
They began gathering up their essentials: a trunk full of photos, passports and other documents, which they stowed in the back of the family Range Rover. Stephanie dashed to the garage where all the painting supplies were stored and loaded as much as possible into her compact Nissan Altima — face paint, glitter, glue, tints brushes, banners — before heading down the hill toward her home in the Coffey Park neighborhood.
Halfway down the hill, a loud explosion rattled the car, and Stephanie saw a blinding flash of light from a blown electrical transformer. She called Clementine, who told her that the power had just gone out.
“At that very moment,” Clementine recalls, “everything starts getting lighter, like the sun is rising... I look up the hill and see a wall of fire rushing downward. I watch houses disappearing from sight, literally being swallowing by the flames.”
Clementine cried out to her husband to stop packing and get in the car, and screamed at Wentir to leash the dogs and get in the Range Rover. She grabbed Leonidas and belted him into his car seat as Wentir cried out that the house next door was on fire. Clementine screamed at her to get in the car.
Less than five minutes had passed since Clementine saw the fire coming down the hill. She turned the key in the ignition, and the car wouldn't start. She tried again — nothing. She ordered her daughter to run to her father’s car with her brother, and then tried to coax the cowering dogs out of the car. They wouldn’t budge. She yanked them violently; they yelped, but they came. They ran to her husband’s car as the air filled with burning pieces of broken branches, twigs and smaller embers. The wind was whipping down on them, seemingly from all angles.
As they drove down the hill, burning projectiles bounced off the vehicle. Clementine could smell the odor of her own singed eyebrows, and feel her chest dotted with small burns from the airborne embers. As her husband weaved through the chaos, they passed two burning cars and multiple roadblocks on the other side of the street before they got to the highway. As they slowly made their way south with hundreds of other cars on the road, they knew their home was no more.
Later, after the family settled in at Brian’s parents home in Rohnert Park and things had quieted down, two-year-old Leonidas looked up at Clementine and said, “Mommy don’t worry. The fire won’t knock down the ducks.”
When she meets with me five days later, Clementine wonders aloud how many people actually died in the fires that night, and in the days that followed — it has to be higher than reported, she believes. She still can’t quite absorb that the family home is entirely gone, and all their things, those “things that mattered,” gone with it. She also believes the ducks died quickly, though she’s not sure how to tell Leonidas.
As she sits looking out the window of the spacious, beautifully appointed apartment South of Market in San Francisco that Brian’s company has provided for them (the company promises they can stay for as long as they need), Wentir is quietly drawing in the adjoining room. Since the fire, drawing has become the family language, and its refuge. Wentir and I shake hands; she looks drained and subdued. Leonidas is napping nearby. Jovie is at a friend's house. Any routine they once relied upon is suspended.
Clementine's face-painting company, meanwhile, has been busy. Within a day of spiriting the paint supplies out of the garage, Stephanie shared them with Clementine’s colleagues Elizabeth Heagerty and Gloria Meija, who fanned out to paint for children at evacuation centers around the area. They worked for several days at the Spring Hills Community Church, where daycare services were offered to homeless families, families looking for alternate housing, or folks who had to go back to work. They also painted at a bike store and dance studio in Santa Rosa where supplies and donations were handed out to the displaced and homeless.
“You would be surprised how much a rainbow or a butterfly or superhero on a little face can cheer a kid up, and help cut the stress,” says Gloria.
As the fires continued to burn, Gloria's and Elizabeth's neighborhoods were evacuated. Their dwellings were eventually saved, but both women describe how Clementine called to wake them and warn that the fires were advancing in their direction.
“I haven’t been back to work and I need to,” says Clementine. “I want that happiness back. That’s all I want right now.
“But what's making me feel best is that my co-workers, the people I trained to paint faces, are out painting right now in the evacuation centers, the churches — wherever survivors, especially the kids, are gathered, trying to help them feel better. Stephanie is my hero for getting our painting supplies out safely. Thanks to her, my team is helping with the healing. Personally, I just can’t do it just yet. But I’ll get there.”
What she's less certain about is finding another place to live in Santa Rosa. Clementine's family is reentering the local rental market after a median rent increase of 36 percent in the week after the fire, according to some reports. In addition to the increased competition for the few available units, rental properties that allowed dogs were proving too hard to find.
When we talk, Clementine says her family is still reeling. She and her husband are hoping to find a house to buy in Petaluma, but even home prices in Sonoma County have jumped as a result of supply and demand after the fire.
And then, of course, there is Halloween, the crazy-busy season for her company, Clementine the Amazing, Face Painting and Entertainment. Despite the fires, customers are scrambling to re-book places and times for Halloween parties. With Clementine back in the saddle, her team is determined to paint as many faces and help heal as many young hearts as they can.
“When the holiday has passed, there will be time to figure out what’s next,” Clementine says.
Meanwhile, there are pro bono face-painting gift certificates to get out to the organizers and auctioneers planning fundraising events. And post-trauma counseling sessions to book for her daughters at Kaiser.
And somehow, in ways yet to be discovered, life will go on.