Michael Dornbach loved the rugged, rolling hills of northern Napa County — the quiet, the isolation, and the way the stars shone bright at night, piercing the sky between the dark cover of oak and laurel trees.

He loved his nephew too, and his sister and other friends and family who lived in and around Calistoga. He was visiting from Southern California last week, thinking about buying a small piece of property of his own, when the fires roared to life.

Mr. Dornbach, 57, wasn’t able to escape. He died early Monday in the Tubbs Fire that started west of Calistoga.

“He doesn’t live in Northern California, but it was one of his favorite places to be,” his sister, Laura Dornbach, said from their mother’s home in the San Pedro neighborhood of Los Angeles on Sunday. “This is a very big loss for so many people.”

Mr. Dornbach, who lived next door to his mother, was staying with his nephew, Laura Dornbach’s son, on family property about 3 miles outside Calistoga. Laura Dornbach, who lives in Calistoga, had come over to visit with them Sunday night, bringing homemade cookies.

It was just an hour after she left that the urgent order to evacuate came. Laura’s son immediately recognized the danger and urged his uncle to leave. But Michael Dornbach had just bought a new truck — he’d driven it up from San Pedro — and he couldn’t find his keys.

“I’m not leaving without my truck,” Mr. Dornbach told his nephew, who pleaded with him to abandon the vehicle.

But the uncle wouldn’t go, and his nephew was forced to leave. Laura Dornbach, who also fled her home, found her son in a supermarket parking lot in town where everyone was waiting for news. She was relieved to see her son, but terrified for her brother. Her son took off not long after, determined to get back up the hill to look for his uncle, but he was turned away by police.

The call came the next day. A man with the county said they needed her to identify his body. “He said, ‘Can you tell me the jewelry he wears?’” Laura Dornbach recalled. “So I said, ‘He wore a gold chain.’”

She doesn’t remember much of the conversation after that.

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Wine Country Fires

Media: San Francisco Chronicle

Laura Dornbach’s home still stands. But the homes of her son’s aunt and grandfather were destroyed. Mr. Dornbach’s truck is fine.

“I wish I could have been there,” Laura Dornbach said, voice shaking. “I would have told him, ‘Michael, please, we will buy you a new truck. Let’s just go.’”

Mr. Dornbach worked most of his life as a longshoreman in Southern California until an injury led to retirement. He loved to fish and was an avid gardener, his sister said. A few years ago, he’d planted a garden on the property outside Calistoga where he was staying.

“He was such a fragile, stubborn, beautiful man,” Laura Dornbach said. “He loved being on that property up here. He loved looking at the stars at night. That’s the biggest thing. He loved how clean the mountains were.”

Erin Allday is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: eallday@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @erinallday