Richard Gunvalsen and Catherine Burke-Gunvalsen

Richard Gunvalsen and Catherine Burke-Gunvalsen

Richard Gunvalsen, a nurse, and Catherine Burke-Gunvalsen, a travel agent, were living in the Extended Stay America hotel by choice at the time of the fire.

Catherine Burke-Gunvalsen: At 3:00 am, I woke up to the smell of smoke and to popping noises...There was an orange glow coming through the window. I walked over to the window and I thought, oh my god, we’re on fire. We threw on the clothes that we had on the night before.

Richard Gunvalsen: At 3:22 we were out.

CG: The Santa Rosa police department was in the hallways banging on the doors [saying] “You have to evacuate!” It was almost like being in a movie, and watching it at the same time. It was just so surreal.

RG: When I realized the scale of the fire, I told Catherine, "I just want to make sure you're safe. I'm gonna take you down to [the home of our friends]” then I headed over to the Kaiser emergency room across the street, assuming that they were going to need help. I helped them evacuate the emergency room. And then about 4:30 or 5:00 we got the word to evacuate the hospital completely.

It was a numb blur! We went out to [Catherine’s] daughter's house out in Discovery Bay. After eleven days, we decided to come back. But even now, I don’t remember much of it.

CG: It was a blur. My daughter and her husband and our grandchildren, they just enveloped us with love. We washed our clothes that night, and got up the next day and put the same clothes back on and we took my grandchildren to a pumpkin patch. It was just lovely to forget what we had gone through for a few hours. We washed our clothes again and put them back on the next day and drove up to Santa Rosa. But the road blocks were up and we couldn’t get in. I was wearing a navy blue dress that I don't think I'm ever going to wear again. It was my favorite dress and I washed and wore it for 10 days straight.

By the time we did get in [to the hotel], it had been two weeks. We’d had a refrigerator full of food and the smell was horrendous. 
CG: As soon as we'd taken everything out, they told us we could move back in." I said, "You haven't cleaned it." They said, "Oh, it doesn't need to be cleaned." Yes it does; the carpets need to be cleaned, the walls need to be cleaned.

Yesterday, I picked up my printer and a pack of paper.

RG: We opened it up and the smell of the fire was in the paper.

“I was wearing a navy blue dress that I don’t think I’m ever going to wear again. It was my favorite dress and I washed and wore it for 10 days straight.”
— Catherine Burke-Gunvalsen

CG: Everything has the smell!

We need to pick out some suits and dresses and bring them to the dry cleaners, but everything is out of pocket because we don't have home owner's insurance. We're "guests."

RG: We're not allowed to have renter's insurance.

CG: We went to FEMA and [they] said they couldn't do anything with us until we had them come out here and showed them that we were actually displaced and we couldn't get into our home.

RG: We did get $1,400. But then the claim was denied for further action because multiple claimants are at this address.

CG: There are a lot of long-term residents here.

This past month has been really challenging on both of us, mentally [crying]...

RG: [Comforting her] and we're okay.

CG: We’ll survive.

RG: [Gently] We'll prevail! We're not just gonna survive.