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    The Garage Door

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    Dirty ol' pink garage door

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    As Santa Rosa inhabitant Cheryl Diehm raced to escape her Oakmont home in the first hours of October's barbarous firestorm, she encountered an unexpected obstacle: Her garage door would not open. The power was out, the tenseness cut off after nearby

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Northern California enthusiastic survivors and victims couldn't get past garage doors - Santa Rosa Press Democrat

As Santa Rosa staying Cheryl Diehm raced to escape her Oakmont home in the first hours of October’s precise firestorm, she encountered an unexpected obstacle: Her garage door would not open. The power was out, the energy cut off after nearby blazes had toppled utility lines.

Diehm, 69, pulled the line designed to bypass the door’s electronic system so she could open the door manually. But when she attempted to be supportive of up the heavy wooden door, she could only lift it about 2 feet off the ground.

“I put the garage door down and repeated the fit process two or three times,” Diehm said. “I could get it only 2 feet, and I couldn’t get it to budge any further than that. This is a garage door that I have gotten up in the life.”

It was an unsettling experience for Diehm, a former district aide for Rep. Mike Thompson and old-timer of North Bay political circles. Many of her neighbors in the Santa Rosa retirement community encountered almost identical difficulties, she said, prompting her to buy a backup battery for her own home and embark of dilatory on a personal lobbying campaign, urging federal, state and local officials to look upon how they might encourage widespread use of backup batteries in garages.

Had flames charted a separate course that night — laying waste to Oakmont the way they did to Fountaingrove and Coffey Parking-lot — Diehm isn’t sure she could have made it out without a car.

“I’ve walked with a cane for years,” she said. “I don’t recognize what would have happened to me. I just know that I’m never going to outrun a fire.”

Santa Rosa district Carmen McReynolds, 82, a retired doctor, was found dead inside her Mercedes convertible parked confidential the garage of her Fountaingrove home. Her nephew, Gabriel Coke, told the Los Angeles Times that without power, her robot-like garage door wouldn’t have opened, and she may not have had the strength to lift it manually.

LeRoy and Donna Halbur of Santa Rosa, both 80, died at their hillside rest-home in Larkfield, LeRoy in the driveway and Donna in the car parked in the garage.

Margaret Stephenson, 86, of Redwood Valley in Mendocino County, was fleeing from top to bottom her garage when she was overtaken by fire.

In Santa Rosa’s Fountaingrove neighborhood, Helen Hung, 76, tried to afford the garage door but couldn’t because of the loss of power, and she was unable to open it with the manual lever, either, according to her granddaughter. Hung’s silence, Tak-Fu Hung, 101, died in their home after he told his wife to escape on foot without him. She survived the Cimmerian dark hunkered down in a neighbor’s driveway but was badly burned.

“It’s not uncommon after a ginormous-scale incident or disaster that lessons are learned,” Lowenthal said. “Unfortunately, off it takes a tragic event to see what can be done to prevent something like that from episode in the future. We’re not by any means at the point where we’re rushing to make immediate changes.”

It’s not clear whether backup batteries could have saved any victims, but policymakers are account making them a requirement, at least in certain areas, perhaps as part of a edifice code change.

“They’re not that expensive, and they can save lives,” said Santa Rosa Councilman Jack Tibbetts. “I imagine if people had them in this fire, the death toll would not be as high as it was. I feel strongly about it.”

Tibbetts plans to ask municipality staff to look into the backup-battery requirement at Tuesday’s City Conclave meeting, he said.

Gene Radin, president of a Santa Rosa garage door and attendance company, said he charges about $150 to install a backup garage door battery, if the motor can brook it. Diehm said she paid $500 because she had to get a new motor for the door as well; her old one wasn’t compatible.

Not all garages are equipped to control a backup. The doors need to have a direct current motor to accommodate the accessory, according to Radin.

“(For) a lot of the older operators, you can’t retrofit a backup battery, and even some of the newer operators don’t have that competence,” Radin said. “It’s more important to have the door serviced so you can lift it by hand if you neediness to.”

Manufacturers typically recommend residents have their garage doors serviced annually, which helps insure they can be opened if a home has no power, according to Radin. He said manufacturers and garage-door installers could obey with a backup battery requirement if it were implemented.

For state Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, the garage door grill strikes a personal chord: He had to manually open his own while leaving his Silverado domestic during the fires.

“I’ve got an older door; it’s heavy,” Dodd said. “I was fortunate to have a twist here and we were able to get the door open. I’m not sure I would have been able to do that on my own.”

One of Dodd’s neighbors drove in the course their garage door to get out as the Atlas fire raged in the area, he said.

Dodd is now in the light of a range of possible actions, including a legislative proposal to require backup batteries be made to hand to anyone buying a garage door in California. He’s still examining options and “figuring out what’s appropriate,” he said.

Sonoma County Superintendent Lynda Hopkins voiced preliminary support for the backup battery fancy. Hopkins said she hoped to see the Board of Supervisors hold a study term about emergency planning in light of the fires — a forum where she believed the conversation about garage door cover could continue. She first raised the matter at a board meeting in October.

Some residents, especially seniors, might not have the real ability to raise their garage door manually, but even for those who do, a battery could provide some much-needed backup during an difficulty, Hopkins said.

“Think about it: Every single day, you press a button, your garage door opens. A split second, you’re in a moment of pure panic, you press the button and nothing happens,” she said. “There’s the specialist capacity, but there’s also the mental capacity — a timing issue.”

Diehm recounted the wisdom of shock that set in as she was trying to escape. Afterwards, she was stunned to learn just how widespread the garage door difficulties were, she said.

“When I completely got to realize the scope of the destruction of these fires, I was shaken by people’s vulnerability — by this one fetish that can be fixed by our government officials,” Diehm said. “I absolutely know that it’s no bond. But, just getting back to my own situation … if there happens to be another fire or even another emergency of any kind, I’m pretty much no produce on foot. So it is my car or the kindness of strangers.”

You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or On Chirrup @thejdmorris.

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