The week of October 8, 2017, the face of Sonoma County changed forever. Monster winds stoked a series of deadly wildfires that roared into Santa Rosa and the Sonoma Valley, surprising sleeping residents and wiping out whole neighborhood. By the time the devastating blazes were contained nearly three weeks later, they had charred more than 114,000 acres, destroyed 5,300 homes and killed 23 people, becoming the worst wildfires in state history.*
At the time of the fires our church facility served as a shelter for 15 - 30 evacuees (members and friends) for six consecutive nights. The most demanding need resulting from the fires has been for immediate housing. In anticipation of addressing future needs, we created a Fire Relief Fund to assist our 51 church families and 10 Presbyterian Preschool families who lost their homes as well as provide care and support for members of our wider community. Out of concern for the most vulnerable populations - people without insurance and without resources - we are supporting Catholic Charities whose care of this group is comprehensive.
Needs vary over a wide spectrum. Eleven of our church families have moved out of the area (six plan to return and five not). Of the families in our area who have found temporary housing, some are planning to purchase a new home, some plan to rebuild on their lot, some hope to return to the rental market (if available and affordable). Others are undecided. Through an application process, we plan to assist families with greatest needs during this recovery and rebuild phase, drawing from our Fire Relief Fund.
Author, blogger, and church member, Tim Stafford, summarized his impressions of what this experience meant for him and others in a recent post:
Everybody has a story to tell and they want to tell it. Going to church or walking the neighborhood is an invitation to long conversations about people’s experience of that night, about those of family or friends or neighbors, or even about experiences we read in the newspaper. Suddenly we have discovered our kinship with each other. We share a community.
The scope of the destruction is stunning, especially Coffey Park, which is a suburban tract across a six-lane freeway from the brunt of the fire, and miles from any woodlands. Something like a thousand homes burned in that one dense neighborhood.
More stunning is how absolute the loss is. When homes are destroyed by fire, flood, tornado or earthquake, there’s usually something left. But these homes are simply gone. Their burned-out cars and washer-dryers are the most prominent structures. Whole neighborhoods look like Hiroshima.
In the past week, the weather has turned, and rain has soaked us. There will be no more fires this season. Though people are still very much in shock, our attention has turned to the long road ahead. How do you rebuild? We had a terrible housing shortage before the fires. Where do all these people live? If they can’t find a place to live, they will surely leave. How would we live without the hundreds of doctors who lost homes? Without the teachers, fire fighters, county staff? Nobody has answers. Rebuilding those homes will take years. It’s unclear how we cope in the meantime.
* Payne, Paul. (2017, November 7)
Uncertainty Looms a Month After Devastating Sonoma County Fires
Santa Rosa Press Democrat