SONOMA COUNTY (KPIX 5) — The devastating Wine Country Wildfires in 2017 affected thousands of people in Santa Rosa and other parts of the North Bay.
Since then, many survivors have banded together to create community strength and gain political influence.
The wildfires wiped out neighborhoods and disrupted–or took–the lives of many. But survivors have seen a silver lining: the rise of a community forged by disaster.
They’ve fed each other, lifted each other’s spirits and even launched a crusade in the state capitol.
For many, one of the darkest times post-fire was the holiday season. Ronnie Duvall sought to fix the literal darkness that was caused by the fire’s destruction.
“When you have nothing here, it’s a painful sight. It’s a scary place for people to come,” said Duvall.
What started out as 30 strands of light hanging in Coffey Park turned into thousands of strands, which spread from the main drag to cul-de-sacs and eventually across the entire neighborhood.
“You know, you can burn down our community, but you can’t burn out our community’s spirit,” said Duvall.
220 Christmas trees were decorated in burned lots and offered a bright spot during a trying time for the affected community.
“Christmas became alive. Hope was here,” said Duvall.
The community spirit isn’t only relegated to those who lost something or someone in the fires.
The fires touched everyone, including Heather Irwin, a food writer who was able to feed those who needed the comfort of a home-cooked meal when they didn’t have a home.
“I noticed there were a lot of chefs who wanted to help out. There were a lot of families–like my own–who were displaced. I noticed it’s really hard to cook a meal for people when you don’t have your grocery store, much less a kitchen,” said Irwin.
Her efforts turned into Sonoma Family Meal, a nonprofit which fed thousands in the days following the fires. The organization currently feeds 80 families who are still trying to get back on their feet and find their way through the aftermath of the fires.
“I hope they feel loved. I think that’s the most important thing to us. We want them to feel like someone really, truly cares about them,” said Irwin.
Others felt the need for a fight from the community. Lobbyist Patrick MacCallum started a group called Up From The Ashes, which united last year’s fire survivors and took their grievances to the state capitol.
“I felt the way I could help would be to make sure that those of us from Sonoma and Napa Counties and other North Bay areas had protected legal rights and could prevent those fires in the future,” said MacCallum.
PG&E outspent Up From The Ashes by a ratio of 20:1, according to MacCallum, but the group came home with a victory when Governor Brown signed SB 901 on September 21, 2018. The new legislation maintains the state’s liability laws and works toward fire prevention.
“It’s kind of healing, being a part of this,” said MacCallum. “More importantly, the Up From The Ashes members that were a part of this feel good about doing something that makes California safer.”
Jeff Okrepkie got the same satisfaction and healing when he started the group Coffey Strong.
The fires took his home and the homes of about 1,500 others in his neighborhood. What began as a way to help educate his neighbors about fire safety and prevention grew into an organization with block captains, political pull and a well-organized network of information.
“I was just a guy living in the neighborhood whose wife went to the community watch meetings, and that’s about it,” said Okrepkie.
The group brought together neighbors in a way he’d never seen.
“Everybody knows everybody now. Everybody knows everybody’s scenarios,” he said.
The Wine Country Wildfires were the worst thing to happen to so many, but the silver linings are special. “Sonoma Strong” signs are still up and locals say they will continue to be.
Thousands may have lost everything, but they ended up gaining each other.
“It’s an attitude of ‘We’re not going to let this control us. We’re not going to let this dictate who we are.’ It’s a fire that happened in 2017, but it’s not going to define us,” said Okrepkie.
“In today’s society, we have a lot that divides us. But in a disaster, there are no longer any walls that barricade anybody in or out. Everybody comes together for one cause,” said Duvall.