Weekly newspaper of Three Rivers, California, and Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks

Erin Farnsworth (back, right) of Three Rivers with her family in 2016 at her grandparents’ home. The home was destroyed in the Atlas Fire on October 8, and the Rippeys (seated, front) died in the blaze.

Grandparents of 3R resident perish in Napa wildfire

By: 
Sarah Elliott

 

During the height of the wildfires in California’s Wine Country this month, a heart-rending story made the national news of a husband and wife, ages 100 and 98, who weren’t able to escape from their home when it caught fire.
 
Charles and Sara Rippey, the elderly couple who died together in the Atlas Fire, are the grandparents of Erin Farnsworth of Three Rivers and great-grandparents to Erin’s toddler daughter, June. For 35 years, the Rippeys had lived in their home adjacent to the Silverado Country Club on Atlas Peak Drive in Napa, inland and about 50 miles north of San Francisco.
 
Erin explained that over the past five years, her grandparents had two devoted caregivers, a pair of sisters, who watched over the couple day and night. The evening of Sunday, Oct. 8, was a windy one, and everyone was in bed as the power began to flicker at about 10:30 p.m.
 
According to Erin, caregiver Maria, 24, who was on duty that night, felt a draft so got out of her bed and went to check the back windows. When she pulled the curtain open, she was shocked when she saw the entire hillside immediately to the east engulfed in flames.
 
Maria ran outside and onto the street, yelling, “Fire! Fire!” No one responded to her alarm. And there were no fire trucks or any first responders in the vicinity. 
 
The Atlas Fire continued its race toward her, consuming everything in its path. The fence in the Rippeys’ backyard caught fire. 
 
Sara, who had a stroke six years ago, was not ambulatory, so Maria rushed to her room and attempted to get her into a wheelchair. 
 
The caregiver could hear Charles, who used a walker, attempting to get to Sara’s room. She called to him repeatedly but there was no answer. 
 
Smoke filled the home and the windows began exploding as the flames reached the house. This all occurred within minutes of when Maria first saw the  hillside ablaze.
 
The roof caught fire and as it began collapsing, Maria made the excruciating decision to run for her life. She escaped out of the back of the house, jumping over the collapsed but still burning back fence. Charles and Sara's remains were later found near each other in the rubble.
 
* * *
 
Charles and Sara Rippey, who had known each other since childhood, were originally from Wisconsin. They married in 1942, and Charles went off to war.  
 
The couple eventually had five children, and most of them migrated to California, which is why Charles and Sara came west many decades ago. Their daughter, Liz, who currently lives on the island of Oahu in Hawaii, is Erin’s mom. Erin, 43, and her younger brother, Wes,  41, were raised in Three Rivers.
 
On March 20, 2017, Charles and Sara celebrated 75 years of marriage. Charles, whom Erin and the rest of the family lovingly call “Peach,” turned 100 in early August with the Rippeys’ offspring and many descendants in attendance for the celebration.
 
* * *
 
In addition to the tragic loss of her grandparents, there is also a century’s worth of possessions that’s been destroyed.
 
“Some people only had time to leave with just the clothes they had on,” said Erin. “There was no warning. There was no time to collect belongings.”
 
Erin remembers a trunk of World War II memorabilia that Peach, who had attained the rank of captain in the military, liked to show her. It’s now reduced to ash as is everything the couple owned.
 
“The entire neighborhood is gone,” said Erin. 
 
The Atlas Fire was one in a series of fires, as many as 17, that all began around the same time due to high winds, gusting up to 70 mph at times, that brought down arcing power lines.
 
Within a week, the cluster of fires had burned more than 210,000 acres and destroyed an estimated 5,700 structures while forcing 90,000 people to evacuate from their homes. These Northern California fires have killed at least 42 people (with many more still unaccounted for, said Erin) and hospitalized at least 185.
 
This makes the week of October 8, 2017, the deadliest week of wildfires in California history.
 
Erin saw her grandparents for the last time in September, when she visited with her life partner, Anthony Pinson, and their daughter, June, 2½. And because Charles and Sara “embraced the Napa lifestyle,” Erin reported, the wine and champagne flowed.
 
Erin has some advice for those who live in Three Rivers, an area also at risk of wildfires: “Have an escape plan.” 
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