Reduced to ashes: Classic cars burned in California fires add to the devastation

Reduced to ashes: Classic cars burned in California fires add to the devastation

Among the many victims of the central California wildfires are those who lost beloved classic cars

Anxious to see what damage had been done to his home in Santa Rosa, California, Scott Birdsall used his own military truck to pass through roadblocks to the area. In that guise, he appeared to be one of the National Guardsman who had been called out to the wildfire zone.

His neighborhood in Coffey Park was one of the hardest hit as the wind-swept blazes destroyed home after home, turning the cozy community into a smoldering moonscape. But Birdsall, the affable owner of Chuckles Garage hot rod shop, hoped that maybe his possessions had been spared.

What he found broke his heart.

“It’s total devastation, like an absolute war zone. Nothing is left,” Birdsall said in a telephone interview with the Journal.

classic cars burned

Birdsall’s Ford Fairlane wound up on its roof | Scott Birdsall

His home was leveled, just the blackened foundation and pieces of steel remaining. But for the passionate car guy, some of the worst distress came when he saw what was left of his garage; his beautiful collector cars were reduced to hunks of burned, twisted metal.

“I had a ’63 (Ford) Fairlane that was fully restored, a ’62 Buick Wildcat that was fully restored,” Birdsall said. “I lost my tow rig and my Lexus. I basically lost everything.”

The Wildcat was the worst, he said, because he had owned the car since he was 19.

“It was an heirloom.”

Fortunately, Chuckles Garage is about five miles away, he said, and was not touched by the fire.

classic cars burned

A 1969 Camaro burnt beyond hope | Goodguys

Collector cars might not be on everyone’s mind when thousands of homes have been swept away by fire and at least 40 people were killed. But the loss of beloved vintage vehicles only adds to the sense of devastation and sadness.

“Obviously, we’ re most concerned about people’s safety and personal well-being, but it sure is a shame when you hear of someone losing a collector car they’re so passionate about,” said Jonathon Klinger, spokesman for Hagerty Classic Car Insurance. “When you start to hear stories of vehicles that have been in the family and passed down through the generations, that’s always tough.”

Most of the collector cars, trucks and motorcycles lost to recent hurricanes and floods in other parts of the country could be salvaged to some extent, Klinger noted, but the vehicles lost to the fires were utterly destroyed with nothing left to soften the blow.

The burnt remains of a Chevy coupe | Goodguys

“So that’s the big difference between the hurricanes and the fires,” Klinger said. “Virtually all the cars were salvageable from the hurricanes. Even in the worst-case scenario, there are parts that are salvageable. In the case of these fires, that’s not happening.

“The vehicles that burned up in the fires, we’re not just talking about smoke damage or paint. You’ve seen the pictures, they’re gone, there’s no salvaging them.”

The photos taken by Birdsall tell the sad tale. The Wildcat is crushed as well as burned, the heat of the fire warping the body panels with the hood bent up over what remains of the buckled roof. Chunks of concrete and charred debris lie all around.

The Fairlane ended up lying upside down, for whatever reason, one of its tires inexplicably remaining.

classic cars burned

The Buick Wildcat was a family heirloom | Scott Birdsall

John Drummond, a spokesman for the Goodguys Rod & Custom Association, also emailed some photos from one of the regular participants in the nationwide car shows. Those photos show a ’69 Camaro that has been obliterated and a mid-’60s Chevy hardtop reduced to rubble.

“It’s been brutal,” Drummond said.

Overseas publications have taken notice of the California wildfire’s destruction of classic cars. The Daily Mail of Great Britain recently published a story and photos of a Santa Rosa man, Gary Dower, who lost his entire car collection.

classic cars burned

Gary Dower of Santa Rosa with one of his ruined cars | The Daily Mail

There was also a somewhat positive story published by the BMW Car Club of America’s newsletter about how a number of club members rallied to rescue one member’s collection of vintage BMWs, including several rare pre-war models.

Klinger said that the California wildfires are expected to result in greater classic car losses than Hurricane Irma, which roared through Florida, as well as Puerto Rico, Cuba and other Caribbean islands, last month.

This has been a rough year for major losses of collector cars, he added.

“There have certainly been more weather-related catastrophic events, a lot of losses,” he said. “But that’s what we’re in business for. We’re prepared for this.”

While Hagerty Insurance might be prepared to pay claims on hundreds of ruined cars, nothing could prepare the collector car owners for what they found when they finally returned home.


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  • Chuck Norris
    October 24, 2017, 9:55 PM

    My heart goes out to all you guys who lost your beloved classic cars. I own a 1967 Camaro RS/SS
    Show car which is the 13th Camaro manufactured when they started making them and If I lost it, I would be devastated just as you guys are. I can say this, if you have Hagerty classic car insurance, you will be reimbursed in a very timely manner as I have been when I had a claim. I also belong to the biggest classic car club in Oklahoma and surrounding states and we have an excellent website which we list classic cars for sale on when they become available. If you would like to check it out go to Again I am very sorry for your losses. Chuck Norris,Oklahoma City, OK

  • Rusty Nootz
    October 26, 2017, 6:23 PM

    "Anxious to see what damage had been done to his home in Santa Rosa, California, Scott Birdsall used his own military truck to pass through roadblocks to the area. In that guise, he appeared to be one of the National Guardsman who had been called out to the wildfire zone."

    Look at me! I’m above the law!

    • Mike@Rusty Nootz
      October 28, 2017, 1:53 PM

      So that’s what you get out of this story, really. That’s sad.

    • Robert Kleeeg@Rusty Nootz
      October 29, 2017, 6:49 AM

      YOU Know ,, Having been through a wild fire in 1999 ,, and loosing (8) collectible vehicles ,, I know How anxious a collector can be ,, However Instead of concentrating on our loss, I did not hesitate
      to climb into the seat of my tractor ,, and cut fire berms around my neighborhood,, trying to save others,, I think this is the prevailing Mind set of collectors,, cars can and will be restored, or replaced ,,But the loss of the community you live in, comes first to all.. I to found a way around the road closures,, knowing others were in danger,, I know a lot of collectors,, but I do believe safety of others, would come first .

    • Jon@Rusty Nootz
      January 7, 2018, 1:49 AM

      Come on
      Until you have delt with something like this give the guy a brake
      We where in the Ceder Fire in San Diego
      Living in our SUV for the first two nights with a 92 year old mother
      Mom in our Tear Drop trailer us in the back of the SUV
      Scary we only lost the food in our freezer

  • scott behrens
    October 26, 2017, 7:42 PM

    My heart crise for your losses. So SAD.

    • Frank Dabbundo @scott behrens
      October 28, 2017, 12:28 PM

      So sorry for your loses hope everything works out for you guys

    • Rhonda Madden@scott behrens
      October 28, 2017, 3:59 PM

      My heart goes out to the owners of these gems and all the owners have lost, beyond the vehicles. I have posted ads, that as an appraiser in the area, I’ll gladly appraise the cars or trucks at a reduced rate and try to get the owners compensation via insurance or other means available.

  • Bill C.
    October 28, 2017, 7:32 PM

    Oh come on… I am a car nut and adore classic cars like all of you out there, and yes, I would be very, very sad and extremely upset if I lost a "beloved" classic car in those devastating fires, or in the recent floods in other parts of the country. But imagine if it was a beloved family member or close friend that was killed in those fires or floods. Precious classic cars may or may not be replaceable but human lives definitely are not… Put things in perspective and appreciate what you do have.

  • Kevin Macpherson
    January 18, 2018, 5:10 PM

    People will laugh but it’s like losing a family member!


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