Devastating fires force families to rebuild from ruin in California

Larry Keyser looks around as he and volunteers from Samaritan's Purse disaster relief sift through remains of his family's home destroyed by fires in the Coffey Park area of Santa Rosa, Calif., on Nov. 8. Associated Press

By Madison Fraser | Reporter

It was 10:30 p.m. on a Sunday and residents all over Sonoma County began to turn in for the evening. Dogs were brought in from the yard, candles were blown out, dishes put away and laundry folded. The wind was abnormally high. Furniture blew across the yard and trees looked as if they might snap in half at any moment. Was this unusual? Sure, but not enough to spike alarm. So people turned out their lights and went to bed.

Five hours later, neighborhoods were startled awake by shouts of, “Get out! Get out now!”

They had five minutes at most to grab their most cherished possessions. Most took just their pets. Some left wearing their pajamas, not knowing that would be the only clothing they would have left.

Monday, Oct. 9, was a day residents of Santa Rosa, Calif., will never forget.

“It was like a scene from the apocalypse,” said Franchesca Galletti, Sonoma county resident. “It all felt so surreal. It still does, honestly.”

The fire, caused by an unknown source, came so quickly over the mountains that nobody had time to prepare. The high winds fueled the flames to spread in every direction over thousands of acres in less than an hour. The fire showed no discretion, consuming the mansions of a university president and beloved local Charles M. Schulz, along with local businesses, a fire station, schools, hotels and a neighborhood of more than 1,300 structures was burned to ash.

The fires continued to burn through Northern California throughout the next week, destroying structures, land, popular Napa wineries and homes. In just a matter of hours, thousands of people became displaced and lost everything. However, what came next for them would feel like the true tragedy.

Bill and Stacy McKee, residents of the destroyed Coffey Park Neighborhood in Santa Rosa, were out of town the night the fires swept through, but were one of many who lost their home.

“There are no words for spending hours looking through the remains of your home for a few treasured items,” Stacy McKee said. “My grandma passed just over a year ago and she had many jewelry pieces that were given to me and although the memories are always there, the sadness that every piece seems to have melted is so hard.”

Residents just like the McKees who lost everything have begun the process to rebuild their homes as well as their lives.

“I used to love the smell of soot, as it reminded me of my dad coming home from fighting a fire,” Stacy said. “That smell has new meaning to me now.”

Temporary replacement homes throughout the town are being filled with victims from the fires. Even though many are grateful for a roof over their heads while their home is being rebuilt, there is an overwhelming heartache knowing that items that once made their house a home are absent from this new life.

“Yesterday while shopping with Stacy I asked what do you need. She replied, ‘Everything!’” said Rita Miller, Stacy’s mother. “I guess I was more focused on the personal belongings and furniture, not the basic stuff we all have in our kitchens.”

Donation centers have been set up throughout Northern California for fire victim relief. Clothing and household items have all been handed off to those in need. GoFundMe accounts have also been set up for victims by their families in order to start the process of moving forward.

Recently, neighborhoods and highways have reopened, nearly a month after tragedy struck.

“Nothing looks the same,” Galletti said. “The beautiful redwood trees, the gorgeous rolling hills with grape vines growing on them and so many historical landmarks well known to our community are all gone. It doesn’t even feel like the same place.”

With each new step, a fresh wave of heartbreak washes over the community, reminding them of the tragedy thousands of people suffered that night. With hope, however, this community continues to work on restoring and rebuilding their town supporting one another through every step of the way.

“Bill and I both have this strong gut feeling that everything will be just fine, maybe even better,” Stacy said. “We know it’s going to be a long road, but this too shall pass.”