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 ClassicCars.com Journal.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.