SANTA ROSA (CBS SF) — Residents throughout California’s picturesque wine country returned to neighborhoods this weekend where fields of debris and ash stood in place of backyards filled with children, swing sets and weekend barbecues.
The devastation was nearly total in neighborhoods like Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park, Fountaingrove and areas of Mendocino’s Redwood Valley.
The death toll remained at 43 and more than 7,000 structures — mostly homes — had been turned to piles of debris by the deadliest outbreak of wildfires in California history.
READ MORE: Wine Country Wildfires
Lines were long Saturday at centers set up to help residents to apply for FEMA loans, state aid and to file insurance claims to begin the recovery process. Early estimates put the losses suffered in the fire to well over $1 billion.
Throughout the region residents struggled with memories of those lost, a deep felt thankfulness to the heroes that emerged and an attempt to return to the new normal in the fire-ravaged region.
On Saturday night, the sound of a high school band, cheerleaders, stands full of excited fans and the smell of fresh popped popcorn from the concession stand came from Napa’s Memorial Stadium where a prep football game took place.
“Football is really big in this community,” Debbie Kmiec told KPIX 5 as she stood at the concession stand. “I needed it…The kids needed it.”
Vintage High player Demitrial Martin stood holding an American flag on the sidelines.
“It’s a great feeling being out here again,” he said. “It means the world to everyone.”
Merchants and winemakers spend their day on Saturday imploring the vital tourist trade to return to the valley. While their businesses were undamaged by the blaze, the lost of foot traffic caused by the fires was proving to be devastating to their bottom line.“We were on track to have our best month and best year ever,” said Walt Wines Thrace Bromberger. “Now all is on hold…People are scared to come back.”
Bromberger said on a normal fall Saturday, the winery’s tasting room in downtown Sonoma would host about 150 people. But this week, they will be lucky to get 50 as the vital tourism trade is slow to return.
Meanwhile, in one Santa Rosa neighborhood, residents spend Saturday searching for a woman called the ‘Fire Angel’ who appeared out of the smoke and flames to join a bucket line that took water from a resident’s pool and helped beat back the Tubbs Fire.
Local resident, Casey Mae Wells, wants to thank the woman in person.
“We arrived at our house while she, along with other amazing people, were running back and forth from Elizabeth’s pool to put out the fire across the street,” she wrote on Facebook. “I would love to say thank you from the bottom of our hearts to this woman … As horrific as last Monday was, I’ve never seen so many come together so selflessly to help.”
And many on Saturday many remembered those who were lost. In Mendocino’s Redwood Valley, relatives of 14-year-old Kai Logan Shepherd, recalled his beautiful spirit.
He was killed as he attempted to flee the deadly flames with his family. His parents and sister were badly burned and continue to battle for their lives.
“He was just an amazing boy,” said Mindi Ramos, Kai’s aunt. “I wish everyone could have seen that smile of his in person and known what a strong, brave, wise soul he was. Fourteen years was not enough.”
With the fires nearly totally contained, the thousands of firefighters who rushed to aid in the battle began to return to their homes in the Bay Area, California and the West Coast.
Included among those brave crews were local firefighters — many who lost their own homes — and volunteer firefighters who raced to battle the flames.
Signs were everywhere across the valley, thanking them for the bravery and courage.
“They put themselves into some pretty bad spots,” said Sonoma Valley Fire Battalion Chief Bob Norrbom. “They were right in the middle of it. They did a great job.”