BURNED: Ari Rosenthal’s home in Santa Rosa was completely destroyed on the night of Oct. 9, during chol hamoed Sukkot. He and his family all escaped unharmed and are now sharing a friend’s one-bedroom apartment in Berkeley.

Q & A with Ari Rosenthal: Evening of homework became a night of fire

November 16, 2017

Ari Rosenthal, now a senior at Jewish Community High School of the Bay in downtown San Francisco, narrowly escaped last month’s deadly fires in Napa and Sonoma counties in Northern California.  Hardest hit was Santa Rosa, a city of about 175,000 people, where Ari lived.  He spoke with Features Editor Lucy Fried Nov. 3.

Boiling Point: Where do you live, and what schools have you attended?

Ari Rosenthal: I previously attended Maria Carrillo High School, and today was my first day at a new school. Now I’m going to the Jewish Community High School of the Bay. My house unfortunately was burned down, and it makes more sense for my family to continue the year in the East Bay.  

I live in Santa Rosa, and within Santa Rosa, there’s an area called Fountain Grove which was especially hit by the fires. And now we are staying with some friends in their one-bedroom apartment, and we’re going to school in the Bay Area.


Boiling Point: Tell me about the night of the fire.

Ari: On Monday the 9th [of October], it was a very, very windy night, and I was up doing homework.

I was up at around 11, it was really gusty winds: upwards of 50 miles per hour was the gust.

As I was doing homework in the sukkah, splinters started blowing on me from the schach, that’s how windy it was. I went inside to do homework, and the power went out in the entire house. I didn’t really think anything of it —  like whatever, it was windy, the power goes out sometimes. And at around 11 p.m., I had started to smell smoke but I thought it wasn’t anywhere near.

I set my alarm for 4 in the morning, I thought maybe if i wake up at 4 in the morning, [the power] will be back on and I’ll do my homework then. So I set my alarm for 4:05 and I go to sleep.

At 3:05 in the morning, my brother starts banging on my door and says,  “There’s a fire!” At first I was a bit worried that I’d slept through my alarm but then I saw that it was only 3:05, so I just went back to bed, I didn’t think anything of it. Then a couple of seconds later I heard a huge blow horn saying: “Santa Rosa Fire Department, there’s a fire, please evacuate your house immediately.”

At that point, I looked outside my window, and it was red and smoky everywhere. The power was out, we looked outside, and there was fire everywhere. Our property has bushes on it, and those were all on fire unfortunately.


BP: What did you bring with you, and where did you go?

Ari: I took my backpack and threw what was near me inside my backpack, including my tallis, teffilin and siddur.

I ran to the garage and helped my dad open the garage door because the power was out, so we couldn’t do it electronically. As soon as we did that, my mouth goes entirely dry. Even though it was 3 in the morning and the power was out, I could see everywhere that the sky and everything around me was lit up with fire.

When we lifted up the garage, then the smoke detectors went off, so yes the smoke detectors did work. We ran up our hill, we had a security gate, so we opened that and then our family drove off.

So I said that I had woken up at 3:05.  My family was out of the house at 3:15. We drove to some relatives who lived in Berkeley down in East Bay.

The drive was intense, we were saying Shema the entire time. But thank God we all got out alive safe, and we’re here to tell the story.


BP: How was school affected?

Ari: School that week was canceled right when there was the fire. This past Friday [Oct. 30] was the first day back for school, so there was three weeks in between the fire and when school started again.

It ended up that the first day back in school was also my last day in school, so when everyone was all happy to see each other alive and well, it was a sad day for me because I was also saying goodbye to all my friends.

With regards to the student body population, there are about 1,600 plus kids at the high school, and 11 percent of the students lost their homes.  We were the only people to change schools that I’m aware of.


BP: Applying to college is a big part of senior year. Has the tragedy interfered with this, for you or other students?

Ari: I’m a senior this year, and the deadlines for when colleges last accept [SATs and ACTs] had already passed and I had already taken the test. I have some friends who are juniors in high school and they weren’t able to take the test. There was an ACT deadline that I’m pretty sure was missed, but the ACT is being accommodating.  

I was in a couple of AP classes, and the teachers in the AP classes said they would not be able to [delay the date] of  the AP test. It’s unfortunate, so what kids at my school had to do was go to school on Saturday, on Shabbos, or stay after class to make up the material.

I mean, considering where college applications fall on the scheme of like, physical things, I was more worried about surviving and, you know, finding a house, because within 24 hours we had, A, lost our homes, and B, were looking for a new place to live. So college applications didn’t really come to mind. But now I’m doing Early Decision schools and the application’s due tomorrow, and I still have a lot of work to do.

Thank God my school’s been very understanding. I’m applying to Yeshiva University, and they totally understand. They’re with me and support me 100 percent, and I’m having the application deadline extended.  I did not request it, they just offered it to me, but thank God I was actually able to finish the application in time, I had three weeks.  

Three weeks of spare time — they were under the most terrible of circumstances, but I had three weeks to work on it nonetheless. The vast majority of the day was talking to insurance companies, talking to FEMA, pretty much contacting friends — like, are you alive, are you okay.

But thank God, I had a little bit of time on the side to do college applications. You also have to get letters of referral from your teachers, and school’s not in session, so you’re not there to ask questions in person, but thank God all my teachers are very understanding and it’ll all work out for me.


BP: Has the fire changed your mindset at all?

Ari: The first step in moving forward is switching schools. With regard to college, I was gonna leave the house anyway.  It didn’t have to burn down.

The moral of the story is that I’m glad my family and myself are alive. With regards to schooling, I think for kids my age, school is everything — oh, they wanna be the best in the future, and have a great college and school experience.  But for me, this disaster really showed me that your life and your family are truly everything.  

With regards to how this affected my school experience, yes I had to change schools, and yes I’m meeting new people and going to a new school where I didn’t know anyone.

But that’s a price I guess I’m willing to pay to be alive.

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