When I got out of the car at my childhood home, I couldn’t look at first. I glanced up at the hills, then stared at the road. They’d repaved it since I lived here. I don’t know why I noticed.
My dad joined me. We looked, and he said one word, in the eerie stillness.
This house, on Angela Drive near the rural Santa Rosa neighborhood of Larkfield, was where I’d lived until I was 14. As my dad and I walked toward what little was left of it, every marker of growing up — my first bike, our wooden treehouse, my bedroom where I played Atari and listened to KREO — all of it came back to me in the burned-out ruins of our former home.
From the scarred front yard where we used to play catch on warm summer nights, my dad pointed out various building materials in the ash. A piece of mauve tile here. A cabinet hinge there. Floor joists, bathroom fixtures. The random ingredients of a home that survive, oddly recognizable now, certainly to my dad. When I was growing up, he’d built this entire house by himself, room by room, remodeling it from a former chicken coop into a home for our family.
As I trudged in foot-deep remains, retracing the floor plan I still have memorized, I was suddenly overwhelmed by how small it all felt.
We’d had Christmases here, birthdays. We’d laughed and loved and cried and played in this house, my mom and dad and two sisters.
All of that life couldn’t possibly have fit inside this 900-square-ft. grey rectangle on the ground, I thought to myself. It just couldn’t.
As I write this, it’s 10:50pm, exactly one month after the fires began. Rain falls outside, almost as a cruel joke, the thing we needed most on Oct. 9. And although Santa Rosa has “turned the corner,” as the analysts and news anchors reporting on the fires’ containment have all told us, it doesn’t always feel that way.
If turning the corner means calls and texts not coming as frequently, donations slowing to a trickle, volunteers dwindling, out-of-town support waning, then sure, we’ve turned the corner.
Anyone who’s lost a loved one knows this feeling. That lonesome period after the funeral, usually a month or so later. People stop asking you how you’re doing, friends stop bringing you food. You feel like the world is silently telling you that you should be doing fine. But you aren’t.
That’s where Santa Rosa is now. The national media has left town, leaving everyone back at square one, with burned-down houses and GoFundMe accounts. The unity we once felt so #strongly has given way to uncertainty and occasional infighting.
We’ve also seen goodwill and charity co-opted or twisted. ‘Santa Rosa Strong’ T-Shirts sold by companies that don’t donate profits to fire relief like they’d promised. The housing market, already untenable with skyrocketing rents and a 1-percent vacancy rate before the fire, now seeing rents jump 36 percent across Sonoma County. Lobbyists and developers jockeying for rebuilding contracts.
But here’s what else I know: that we’re tough enough and smart enough to get through this phase. As the editor overseeing all the fire stories we’ve covered here at KQED Arts, I’ve seen how artists are often the first to make sense of a senseless disaster. People like Brian Fies, who translated his experience of losing his house and all its belongings into comics form, who provided understanding and catharsis for those still hurting.
I see people who have lost everything with an intense determination for their own recovery — and the will to further upend their lives helping others.
There’s the story of Mark and Terri Stark, who lost Willi’s Wine Bar but kept their other restaurants open to feed evacuees. There’s Clementine Lee, who arranged for her team of face-painters to keep evacuated children happy even after her own house burned down. There’s the Loveland Violin Shop loaning instruments to students whose violins burned in the fire, even as the owners’ longtime home is completely gone.
The musical community stepping up to donate to radio host Robin Pressman and musician and engineer Allen Sudduth, who both lost their homes and tools of their trade. Artists like Mikayla Butchart and galleries like Agent Ink donating their talents and time to help raise thousands of dollars for fire relief.
These stories go on and on and on. We may still be a small town in many ways. But we have a big reserve of ingenuity and smarts when it comes to helping each other out.
After I left my former house on Angela Drive, I drove the roads of my old bus route. The school where I learned to skateboard. The restaurant where I celebrated getting engaged. The old La Mancha Apartments, where I’d fallen hard on my bike; I still have the scar. Past my friend Brandon’s house, and Jake’s house, and Eric’s house. All ruins.
Bear with me here: The homes in Mark West Estates, where Sarah and Stacy and Mark all lived—gone. The east wing of the Luther Burbank Center, where I had my first kiss on the playground in kindergarten—gone. Cricklewood, where I’d bring friends for prime rib on their birthday—gone. Up the hill, Rancho Wikiup, where I officiated my little sister’s wedding—gone. Houses on Brighton Drive and Chelsea Drive and Dorchester Drive and Lambert Drive—gone, gone, gone.
I enumerate all this for a reason. This was just a one-mile stretch in Larkfield. Take the above memories and connections and multiply them by every region affected, and every resident, and you begin to understand the scale of destruction. Between Santa Rosa, Napa, Kenwood, Glen Ellen, Sonoma, Redwood Valley and more, the fires consumed 281 square miles. That’s one thousand Disneylands. Over 5,000 homes burned completely to the ground.
One month later, we still have a lot of people wondering what they’re going to do.
I can’t say what’s going to happen to my hometown. I know that wealthy people will be able to stay, while low-income residents, including teachers and servers and artists, have already had to move elsewhere. I know that Fountaingrove, the upper-class hilltop neighborhood where as a teenager I worked with my dad building houses, is awash in renewed controversy over ridgetop ordinances and fire-zone warnings. I don’t know what’s going to happen with the site of the historic Fountaingrove Round Barn.
Neither do I know what will become of the former home of our family friends Art and Suiko Grant, who sold me my first car, and who died in their house the night of the fires. I can’t say if another house will be built where my childhood home once stood—or, for that matter, the home of our neighbors Leroy and Donna Halbur, two houses down, who also didn’t make it out of the fire in time.
But I know that we can do it, if only because we’ve been here before. Through the 1906 earthquake, the 1964 Hanly Fire, the 1969 earthquakes, the 1986 flood, there is a history of rising from our losses here with grit and spirit. Sometimes we’ve made mistakes in rebuilding from natural disasters, and we can learn from those. But mostly, we can be inspired by the ways people took care of each other then, and how we continue to take care of each other now.
I also know that we’ll be telling stories about this month for the next 50 years. And I know that we’ll be sculpting — architecturally and demographically — the city to come. Santa Rosa and the entire affected region will now be, in our memories, two Santa Rosas: “before the fire” and “after the fire.”
How different will they look from one another? From here on out, that’s up to us.