A charred car remains in Santa Rosas Rocky Point Way neighborhood on Friday, October 13, 2017. (Sarahbeth Maney/Golden Gate Xpress)
A charred car remains in Santa Rosa’s Rocky Point Way neighborhood on Friday, October 13, 2017. (Sarahbeth Maney/Golden Gate Xpress)

A year later, tragic fire looms in memory

On the one year anniversary of the North Bay Fires that ravaged Sonoma and Napa counties and its surroundings, SF State alumnus Michael Celona, a retired San Francisco firefighter, reflected on the shock he experienced during that time.

Even with multiple decades of firefighting under his belt, Celona said he was struck by the sheer magnitude of the fires.

“In 30 years with San Francisco Fire, I thought I saw everything,” Celona said. “I have not seen it all. This was far beyond anything that I had ever saw.”

The three main fires — the Atlas, Nuns and Tubbs fires — collectively burned 144,987 acres. That’s almost five times the size of San Francisco.

On the night of Oct. 8, 2017, a firestorm began raging in the North Bay, and over the next three weeks, destroyed more than 8,900 structures, killed 44 people and forced tens of thousands to abandon their homes to the fire. It was the most destructive fire in California’s history.

That morning, Joanne Derbort, an SF State journalism lecturer, headed to work at the Press Democrat’s office in downtown Santa Rosa. She and four other editors directed the news outlet’s fire coverage from a newsroom full of stunned staff and family members who were forced to evacuate.

“I arrived to the newsroom really early on that first Monday morning to what looked like a scene from hell. I mean I’ve never seen so much smoke and so much chaos,” Derbort said. 

“In the newsroom already were families of employees who had evacuated in a panic overnight. They were napping on the couches, napping on the chairs, their kids were running around, the dogs were running up and down the aisle. It was a real scene of more personal evacuation than a newsroom at that point.”

Derbort and the rest of the Press Democrat news team shifted into high gear and worked 16-hour days for three weeks straight before they could stop to catch their breaths. 

Some of the employees would leave in the middle of the day to evacuate with their families, and still come back to meet deadline. Their efforts ended up earning the news team a Pulitzer Prize. 

On Friday, Oct. 12, 2017, smoke and ash made its way to the SF State campus and forced the university to cancel classes and activities through the weekend. 

The Student Health Center and the Environment, Health and Safety Department provided a limited supply of dust masks to students, staff and faculty.

SF Hillel, a Jewish student organization on campus, immediately started organizing to help the victims.

“We were collecting donations right after the fires occurred on campus and at our building, San Francisco Hillel,” said Emily Simmons, the SF Hillel student experience architect. “Then one of our staff members drove those donations up during that first week of the fires.”

In January 2018, on Martin Luther King Day, SF Hillel organized a volunteer trip with students from SF State, Berkeley and Stanford to assist three different organizations: Redwood Empire Food, Peer Sonoma and the Jewish Community Free Clinic. 

Ocean Noah, 19, an SF State sophomore majoring in creative writing, took part in the trip.

“We packaged meals or boxes of meals to send to families,” Noah said. “We worked in a donation warehouse. It was pretty much like a store. We organized the items, and the fire victims who needed clothes or other items could come and get what they need, but it wouldn’t cost anything.”

SF Hillel is planning another volunteer trip. Noah said his last experience was so fulfilling that he plans to get onboard for the second trip.

“Going there and learning about how the fire affected the people was really powerful,” Noah said. “I felt super connected to the people I was helping, and they were all out there helping us, too, because they were hosting us. So, it was a direct give and take, which was something I hadn’t really experienced before. I felt hopeful in humanity.”

Santa Rosa is still facing plenty of infrastructure problems like replacing underground PVC water pipes that melted during the fires. 

The community is also grappling with ethical dilemmas such as whether to allow property owners to rebuild in vulnerable locations.

“There were frustrations about rebuilding,” Derbort said. “[People question] the wisdom of rebuilding in some places: should that even be allowed since it’s such a fire prone area and yet can you deny a property owner their right to rebuild? They’re wrestling with lots of issues like that in this community right now and will be for a while.”

PG&E is now taking proactive steps to avoid another catastrophe, but their efforts have been controversial. On Sunday, Oct. 14, PG&E shut off power to almost 60,000 customers in multiple northern counties because weather forecasts predicted dry wind gusts of up to 50 mph. 

The power outage caused frustration among many community members who deemed it unnecessary and questioned why PG&E didn’t provide much notice, and didn’t provide a notion of how long the outage would last.

State Sen. Mike McGuire called the situation “unacceptable,” according to a story in the Press Democrat.

By 8 p.m. Tuesday, PG&E restored all power to its customers.

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A year later, tragic fire looms in memory