Bringing a Measure of ‘Peanuts’-Style Joy to a Community Devastated by Wildfires

Jean Schulz -- pictured here at the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa -- is one of the thousands of North Bay residents who lost their homes in Wine Country fires of early October. (Dan Brekke/KQED)

Late the night of Oct. 8, Jean Schulz got a call from a neighbor on the northeast outskirts of Santa Rosa.

“You need to leave,” the neighbor told the wife of the late “Peanuts” creator, Charles M. Schulz, because of a fire on Mark West Springs Road.

“And I thought, ‘Well, Mark West Springs Road is a long way away,’ ” Schulz said in an interview last week at the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa. She pulled on sweatpants, a sweatshirt and tennis shoes and got ready to depart. She didn’t think she’d be gone for long.

“I actually looked at my wedding rings and thought, ‘Oh, I’ll come back for them.’ I absolutely didn’t think anything was going to happen,” Schulz said. Though she didn’t see flames when she left, the gusting breeze from the northeast got her attention.

“I thought to myself, ‘That’s the sort of wind someone in Hollywood would create if they wanted to signal a disaster was about to take place,'” Schulz said.


Schulz spent the next few hours gathering with others who had been uprooted from their homes in the middle of the night — first in a church parking lot about a mile away, then relocating as the fire moved into Santa Rosa proper.

“I began to hear how much destruction there was, that the fire had leaped the freeway,” she said. “I thought that was impossible — six lanes of freeway? How can that happen? How can that be?”

Still, Schulz says, she maintained some hope — she refers to it as “a bubble of naïveté” — that her home had been spared. It hadn’t been, and “Peanuts” fans around the world expressed sadness at the home’s destruction.

“People’s concern has been touching — concern for Charlie Brown’s house,” Schulz said.

Good Grief by Mark Fiore
An October 2017 cartoon by KQED’s Mark Fiore reacted to news that the home of Jean Schulz and her late husband, ‘Peanuts’ cartoonist Charles M. Schulz, had been destroyed in North Bay fires.

Even so, Schulz put off talking publicly about the fire and its aftermath until there was some sort of “good news” story to tell. That story, for her, revolves around the Schulz Museum.

The house fire destroyed some items associated with Schulz’s career, including a drawing table he occasionally used. But the bulk of the cartoonist’s artistic legacy was housed at the museum, which opened two years after his death in February 2000.

The blaze, which Cal Fire named the Tubbs Fire, burned more than 4,600 homes and about 100 commercial buildings in and around Santa Rosa. At one point, the fire burned to within a mile of the museum. The facility was closed, first because of evacuations in the area and then so workers could clean up the effects of smoke that had infiltrated the structure.

“They came in as soon as they could, took everything off the walls and put it in safe storage,” Schulz says. Air scrubbers were installed. The air-conditioning system needed to be cleaned. Every level surface — floors, rugs, furniture and upholstery — had to be vacuumed and washed. Finally, the facility reopened Nov. 4, with a free day for the community staged a week later.

Schulz, who serves as the president of the museum’s board of directors, says the free day was intended as a gesture to help her traumatized community recover. The museum hired professional photographers to take pictures of visitors in various “Peanuts” settings or with characters from the strip.

“Some people said, ‘This is our first family picture — we lost all our pictures, and this is our first fun day since the fires happened,'” Schulz said. “It makes me feel good that the museum can bring some happiness, even in a tragedy, with something as simple as a photograph.”

There was a more personal good news story for Schulz in the fire’s aftermath, too. Returning to the ruins of her home with someone experienced in searching burned buildings, she hunted for the wedding rings she’d left behind on a bathroom counter.

“The funny thing was they were in a small, 5-inch ashtray or something from Paris — I think from Maxim’s,” Schulz said. “That survived. The rings were there, and I could actually put them on.”

Bringing a Measure of ‘Peanuts’-Style Joy to a Community Devastated by Wildfires 22 November,2017Dan Brekke

Author

Dan Brekke

Dan Brekke is a blogger, reporter and editor for KQED News, responsible for online breaking news coverage of topics ranging from California water issues to the Bay Area’s transportation challenges. In a newsroom career that began in Chicago in 1972, Dan has worked as a city and foreign/national editor for The San Francisco Examiner, editor at Wired News, deputy editor at Wired magazine, managing editor at TechTV as well as for several Web startups.

Since joining KQED in 2007, Dan has reported, edited and produced both radio and online features and breaking news pieces. He has shared in two Society of Professional Journalists Norcal Excellence in Journalism awards — for his 2012 reporting on a KQED Science series on water and power in California, and in 2014, for KQED’s comprehensive reporting on the south Napa earthquake.

In addition to his 44 years of on-the-job education, Dan is a lifelong student of history and is still pursuing an undergraduate degree.

Email Dan at: dbrekke@kqed.org

Twitter: twitter.com/danbrekke
Facebook: www.facebook.com/danbrekke
LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/danbrekke

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor