The sun is red. The earth, white. There is no sky. Just across the highway, life appears to continue. Santa Rosa, despite being one of the most severely impacted cities in Sonoma County, is doing everything it can to care for its own in the wake of the ongoing Wine Country fires.
“My friends have warned me, ‘Jill. It’s not the same, it’s never going to be the same, so prepare emotionally for that’.”
Jillian Larson, an SF State studio art major from Santa Rosa, was left wondering whether her friends and family were safe. During the first day, she heard nothing.
“It was heartbreaking. Fortunately, many of my friends were able to save their homes,” Larson said. “Some families stayed to fight the fire themselves, they just kept spraying down any embers that fell in their yard.”
Larson, a self described “military-brat,” has moved around much of her life, but considers Santa Rosa home. Although she continued to attend class in San Francisco, her thoughts mingled with the smoke in the North.
“I can’t wait to be up there and hug the people I love. I feel so fortunate, everyone I reached out to is doing okay considering the circumstances,” she said. “A lot of them are housing other people.”
Evacuees who stay with friends and family, however, don’t receive the support provided by international organizations such as the Red Cross, which doesn’t turn people away, but may not be the most comfortable option for those forced from their homes.
One of Larson’s friends, Amber Stiving, 29, of Santa Rosa, has been working with a community-based organization called Street Soldiers to funnel donations directly to the community.
Working out of her garage, the organization has grown from 4 volunteers to over 70 in the last five days, according to Danny Chaparro of Santa Rosa, who created the organization two weeks before the fires started.
Street Soldiers’ initial goal — to support troubled youth — has expanded its reach to anyone affected by the fires that have destroyed more than 2,800 homes in Santa Rosa.
“We just got together, collected our resources and tried to make a difference,” Chaparro said.
Chaparro and Stiving, along with two others, gathered donations and delivered them to the Red Cross on Monday night, but discovered they were becoming overstocked with donations. They decided to direct the goods to another community of evacuees.
“Families are stuck in a packed house with other family members and we thought we could do care packages personally for them,” Chaparro said. “Then we can help them instead of giving it to a shelter for them to just store it.”
Street Soldiers receives no funding but has grown so quickly they are now moving out of a garage into the well-known sports and entertainment facility, Epicenter, in Santa Rosa.
“We have kids in our group that are homeless. They have lost their homes, but they want to support this movement,” Chaparro said. “We have alleged gang members, we have teachers, we have non-profit workers. We had no structure. Everyone just came together.”
Evacuees, however, weren’t the only people invited into the community’s homes.
“We had 25 firefighters here for dinner last night,” Greg Service said. He’s lived in Santa Rosa for 30 years.
Service, preparing for the fire, began clearing brush around his house. Smoke filled the air, but the fire hadn’t yet reached him. After the day’s work, he and his neighbors climbed onto his roof, drank three bottles of wine and waited for the fire to come over the hills.
It didn’t arrive that night, but the flames soon licked the horizon.
Despite a mandatory evacuation, Service stayed home. The police told him to leave four times. Still, he stayed. A perk of being the officer’s old football coach.
“It was scary seeing that wall of fire coming at you,” Service said. “No matter all the work we did, it wasn’t going to stop.”
The firefighters soon arrived to commence back burning — starting small fires near a firebreak to reduce the potential fuel of a nearby wildfire — in the expansive fields behind Service’s home.
“They knew exactly what they were doing,” Service said. Fueled by wind and undergrowth, the conflagration tore over the ridge toward his home, but as a wave breaks upon stone, the fire shifted course just 500 yards from his house.
The firefighters had saved his home but stayed in the area to continue working.
“They were just sitting there with nowhere to go,” Service said. He invited them to use his bathrooms and showers.
At a firefighter’s request, Service’s girlfriend, Consuelo Service, went to the closest Safeway for supplies. After telling them the situation, Safeway donated $400 worth of goods to keep the firefighters going.
“We shared a lot of stories over dinner,” Service said.
The Wine Country fires are not contained. Progress has been made, but as strong winds exacerbate the situation, thousands more have been evacuated from Santa Rosa today.
“It’s going to be a lot of rebuilding within the next year. Luckily Santa Rosa is a strong community,” Larson said. “It feels special to be from somewhere like that.”