October Fires' 44th Victim: A Creative, Globetrotting Engineer With 'the Kindest Heart'

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Michel Azarian, photographed during a recent trip. Azarian lived outside Santa Rosa and died Nov. 26 as the result of burns suffered during the Tubbs Fire in October.  (Courtesy of Khachik Papanyan)

Michel Azarian, 41, died Sunday at UC Davis Medical Center from extensive burns he suffered when the Tubbs Fire trapped him outside his home on the outskirts of Santa Rosa.

He is the 44th person to have died as a result of the October wildfires that devastated huge swaths of the North Bay and other Northern California communities.

People who knew him describe Azarian as a natural engineer -- his mind was the right mix of creative and analytical. His talents brought him from tragedy in war-torn Lebanon to the United States, Silicon Valley and eventually Santa Rosa.

Azarian's father and uncle were killed in the mid-1980s during the Lebanese civil war, his friend Khachik Papanyan said in a phone interview Tuesday. The family business was destroyed in a bombing.

Azarian helped his mother rebuild and worked in a shop selling bedding in his hometown of Zahle, Lebanon, but he dreamed of attending the American University of Beirut.


He found out the only way he'd have a shot at getting in was an exceptionally high SAT score.

"He was a smart enough guy where he was able to get an amazing score on the test and get admitted," Papanyan said. "However, that wasn't enough. They didn't have enough funds to cover the tuition for the first year."

Azarian sold land left to him by his father, invested, and sold again, eventually generating enough money to cover his first year's tuition. He majored in electrical engineering and started earning scholarships.

In 2002, Azarian was recruited to work for National Instruments in Austin, Texas, where he met Papanyan.

"We went to an event, actually a lecture about Greek architecture, and somehow I think I asked a question related to Armenia," Papanyan said. Azarian, whose father was Armenian, approached Papanyan after the lecture. "That’s how we struck our friendship in Austin, and we've been best friends since then."

Azarian spent eight years in Austin, designing radio technology and other wireless circuitry.

"He was extremely gifted when it came to problem-solving," said Papanyan, who worked for Dell at the time. "The regular puzzles it would take me a day to solve, he could solve it in the blink of an eye."

Outside of work, Azarian's passions led him away from circuit boards and into nature. Papanyan said his friend was elated when he got a new job -- for Linear Technology -- and moved to San Jose in 2014.

"He loved to travel. He loved photography. He loved hiking quite a bit," Papanyan said. He added that Azarian told him he'd hiked almost every weekend in Silicon Valley and "never had to repeat a trail."

But he left a community of friends in Texas, including one associated with the Armenian Church of Austin.

"For those of you who had the pleasure of knowing Michel, he had the kindest heart and an incredible lust for life," wrote Mihran Aroian, parish council chairman for the church, in an announcement of Azarian's death. "He was also an active globetrotter and a brilliant photographer. He had a robust appreciation both for the quiet beauty in nature along with fun adventures and laughter with friends."

Azarian's Instagram feed contains a mix of landscape photography, vibrant natural close-ups and some urban/architectural shots. Papanyan said the bulk of Azarian's photos are believed to have been stored on his home computer, destroyed in the fire.

He moved to Santa Rosa about two years ago, Papanyan said, and took a new job with Keysight Technologies there.

Papanyan said he wasn't sure whether Azarian was at home on Oct. 8, the night the fires hit Santa Rosa, or if he was outdoors and trapped by the wind-whipped wall of flames that roared across the hills from Calistoga.

Either way, he couldn't get out, and appears to have tried to take shelter in a small clearing near his home. That's where he was discovered the next day, with severe burns on more than half his body.

"It’s just amazing that he was able to survive the whole night being surrounded by the firestorm," Papanyan said.

Thus began some six weeks of hospital visits to Azarian's bedside at the UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento. Azarian couldn't talk -- his throat was blocked by a ventilator.

"The only way he could communicate was with his hand," Papanyan said. "He would actually write out the letters and we would try to decode what he was saying."

A family friend went to Lebanon to bring Azarian's mother to his bedside. She had been with him for the past few weeks, Papanyan said.

Keysight Technologies helped support his mother's room and travel, according to friends, and high-ranking executives who joined her in Azarian's hospital room many times.

He died Sunday, according to information from Cal Fire, UC Davis Medical Center and the Sacramento County Coroner's Office.

"He was an intelligent, fun-loving, nature-loving guy that always had a broad smile on his face, was always there for his friends," Papanyan said. "He’s now in the heavens, and he will be with us in our memories forever. It was an honor, a great honor, knowing him."

Below: A sortable list of the 44 people identified as having died as a result of the October fires in Northern California . To access links, right click (Windows) or control click (Mac OS X):