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Sonoma County wedding planner loses own home in fire, but saves the dreams of young couples

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The cellphone, set on silent, buzzed insistently 17 times in the middle of the night Oct. 9 before Brittany Rogers-Hanson finally woke up in her newly rented home in Fountaingrove and picked up the message to evacuate.

Outside, explosions pounded like mortar fire over the hillside enclave.

Because one friend, Santa Rosa Police Officer Orlando Macias, didn’t give up on her, Rogers-Hanson is alive. She had 20 minutes to gather up her husband, Eric, her three kids, her daughter’s friend who was with them for a sleepover, her son’s service dog, her father’s watch and her aunt’s heirloom sapphire ring, and get into the car, all while taking precious moments to wake up 15 other families they knew in the area, putting out phone calls, leaning on their car horn and banging on doors. She called one family 20 times.

An eerie drive to the bottom of Fountaingrove Parkway, during which they hit a fallen tree, ended at the on-ramp to Highway 101, where they faced another freakish sight — 50 cars headed straight for them scurrying south in the northbound lane. The Fountaingrove Inn and historic Round Barn had not yet burned. Thirty minutes after they left, their own home would be engulfed.

One motorist rolled down his window and shouted “Turn around. The freeway is on fire!”

That’s how Rogers-Hanson’s week began. For the 38-year-old wedding planner there would be no opportunity over the next two weeks to even contemplate her own loss. She had seven weddings to salvage immediately — 27 before the end of the year.

For the last two weeks she’s pinballed around between motel rooms, her car, a tiny office in Windsor and eventually a friend’s weekend home in Healdsburg. She’s worn a patchwork of unrelated garments frantically pulled from racks at Target and a care package of hand-me-downs from an aunt, who thoughtfully included a pair of black slacks and a blouse.

“At that point I was wearing sweats, no bra and a hoodie ,” said Hanson,.

In the two weeks since the fires broke out, Rogers-Hanson and her tiny team from Run Away With Me weddings, including chief wedding planner Kalika Ansel, who was burned out of her townhouse across from the Luther Burbank Center, have worked like bats out of hell. They scrambled to move two weddings from Napa and Sonoma to Novato at the last minute as the fires raged, graying skies with strangling smoke even over areas unaffected by flames.

“Our phones,” she said, “were blowing up.”

Throughout that, she combed Craigslist for a rental, booked motel rooms for fellow refugees, got her 15-year-old autistic son on a plane to his grandma’s house in Spokane, Washington, helped arrange a long-awaited dance for his school, Anova, which burned down along with other parts of the Luther Burbank Center, and coordinated the delivery of converted storage containers, used at Burning Man, and that were donated to provide temporary housing for up to 76 displaced Anova teachers and families with special-needs children.

In what might seem like the icing on the cake, the weddings rescue for Rogers-Hanson was all about saving what is supposed to be the best day of a couple’s lives, for anxious clients who were depending on her.

But there was a larger mission. It was also about saving her business and the livelihoods of a multitude of small contractors who depend on the Wine Country’s allure as a wedding destination. And October, with its balmy days and harvest vineyard backdrops, is the most popular month of the year to get hitched .

Her story is but one of thousands of dramatic instances of everyday people stepping up under impossible conditions during the firestorms to keep the moving parts of their lives and businesses going .

“I’m self-funded. I haven’t bought a house here because I put all my money back into my business so I can afford to live here,” she said. “My clients pay me and I pay all my vendors. Literally these people paid me the full total for their weddings.”

Hit with three cancellations, her team of four kicked into gear to salvage what was left and keep any more from canceling. In one day alone Rogers-Hanson worked the phones to soothe the fears of 37 brides wondering if their weddings were still on. Each canceled event has the potential for setting off a cascade of suffering for the florists, cake bakers, hair stylists, wedding photographers, caterers, musicians and other people whose income depends on Wine Country weddings and events.

Rogers-Hanson’s husband Eric owns a photo booth and wedding photography business. But his equipment was in a storage unit near Santa Rosa’s K-mart, which burned. They couldn’t get to the locker to even find out if it survived the fire, much less access anything that might be inside.

“Our business is insured but you can’t just go shopping and buy these things,” Rogers-Hanson said. Fortunately a young woman who did work for them had some of their equipment, enough to cover the weddings.

In the first week of the fires they had two weddings that had to move because of smoke. Head coordinator Kalika Ansel, who evacuated from her own Larkfield apartment within 5 minutes, found herself driving around Marin County in the days afterward, scouting out venues that could host a small, upscale wedding with no notice.

Novato wound up as a Wine Country stand-in.

For a Thursday nuptials she moved a couple from a winery in Napa County to the Wedgwood StoneTree golf course.

“They’re bordering on Wine Country at least. They had vineyards on the walls and weeping willows,” she said, praising the management for their accommodation and kindness.

“I had to get two boxes of face masks for the guests but we ended up in a beautiful place. It was a beautiful ceremony,” Rogers-Hanson said. My clients cried. They said the chuppah was exactly what they wanted, the bouquet exactly like she ordered.”

For their Friday wedding, they needed a winery. By luck, Ansel stumbled on a tiny family winery with a small vineyard, Pacheco Ranch, off Alameda del Prado in Novato. She was dubious driving in, but her fears were quelled by a kind and accommodating winemaker Jamie Meves who said come on down.

The officiant who was supposed to preside over the ceremony lost her home in the fires so Ansel stepped in and did it herself, one of many ripple effects from the fire that demanded work-arounds, like providing wedding music.

“I happened to have a Sonos speaker. I was afraid my office in Windsor was going to go up in flames so I had put it in my trunk. I was able to play their wedding music,” said Rogers-Hanson, who also scored a guitarist at the last minute.

“Event planners have incredible logistical skills,” said Tim Zahner, interim CEO at Sonoma County Tourism. “Every event planner in Sonoma County knows how to get things done quickly and in a constantly changing environment. They’re the calm in the storm. You and I freak and they call it another day of work.”

Zahner said it’s critical for the economic health of the region to get across the message that once the smoke clears, Sonoma County is still in business.

“It’s horrible and terrible, especially in Santa Rosa and Sonoma Valley. But the county is still here and a lot of people depend on these jobs,” he said, noting that weddings are a large part of the region’s economy and appeal.

Harrison Sapp, a 30-year-old fashion blogger from Atlanta, had been anticipating and promoting her Wine Country wedding for months. But when she started seeing the images of burned homes and blackened hillsides she wondered if it was even right to go forward with it.

“It honestly brought me tears,” she said. “I expressed my guilt feelings with Britt and Kalika and they said the best thing I could do at a time like this is come.”

Rogers-Hanson and Ansel covered all the details of the wedding, but The Lodge at Sonoma, where she and White planned to spend their honeymoon, was closed because of the fire.s

“Harrison called me in a panic on Friday,” said Sharon Rooney, director of public relations for The Four Sisters Inns, which owns seven boutique properties in Wine Country, including the Kenwood Inn and The Gaige House in Glen Ellen, both of which had been evacuated. She managed to open up a room at their Healdsburg Inn on the Plaza, which last week was closed to bookings but hosting a PG&E crew. Four Sisters President Shelley Post offered to comp the stay for the couple.

Rooney said here are so many businesses that are a part of each destination wedding.

“If we don’t have rooms booked we don’t have housekeepers come in to clean rooms and we don’t have cooks coming in to make breakfast in the morning. It’s a big chain reaction. If you cancel a wedding you’ve affected a lot of pocketbooks.”

Caterer Lisa Boisset of The Cook and the Drummer, works frequently with Rogers-Hanson.

“We’ve had three events cancel. That’s huge.” said Boisset, who hires 30 people on and off for serving, not to mention cooks, rental companies and food purveyors.

“It was pretty challenging. I’m not going to lie,” she said of setting up a kitchen for the Novato wedding with smoke all around. “If I have to climb mountains to help and be there for that special occasion and fulfill my commitment as a chef and caterer, I will roll with the punches. It’s not an easy busy. You’re prone to chaos. But during a disaster we’re trying to keep the tears from flowing because people we work with so closely have lost their homes.”

She found solace gathering food donations and orchestrating a buffet dinner for 375 sheriff’s deputies, and other weary first responders in front of the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office on Oct. 15. Girl Scouts baked cookies. Musicians entertained. At the same time she was putting up evacuated friends in her Occidental home.

“It made me feel better as a business owner to put my hope in the community; otherwise you just feel sad.”

On Wednesday, before heading up to Harrison Sapp’s wedding at a private winery in Healdsburg, Rogers-Hanson stopped to lend support to Ansel as she sifted through the ashes of her home.

“It took me a little while to figure out what was what. But I found little things, like my grandmother’s sewing machine. It’s completely black but it’s there. We found a piece of pottery my mom made when I was a year old. “

She described her feelings as an odd teetering between numbness and devastation.

The “perfect dress” that she had found for her own wedding next year, was lost. But there was no time to think about a replacement.

When she and Rogers-Hanson showed up on a warm Indian summer afternoon in Dry Creek for Sapp and White’s wedding at a small private winery, they all fell into spontaneous hugs. The fact that it was actually happening seemed like a miracle. It was the miracle of an army of people fighting off their own grief under impossible odds to make a perfect experience for a young couple embarking on their lives together in the middle of a disaster.

“We just fell into each other’s arms and hugged,” said Sapp, who met her wedding planners face to face for the first time right before the nuptials. “We couldn’t believe they were able to get out of bed, much less put on our wedding. The whole experience has been extremely humbling.”

The bride declared the day perfect. And said she didn’t even notice when, as everyone was finishing dinner on the deck, a small fire broke out on a nearby hill. The wedding planners kept their composure.

It wasn’t until she got back to her parents’ home in Marin, where she and her fiance, Sean Casady, a video editor, have been staying, that she broke down.

“I really practice gratitude in every moment. I had a stranger hug me in line in a store last week. I just see this outpouring of love and people coming together,” she said.

But the foundation of her life has been swept out from under her. A home, she reflected, is not just the place and the things inside.

“It’s your comfort and your safety. And your routine. Human beings need that. I know I’ll get it back but it’s very weird not knowing where you’re going to put your home back together.”

For Rogers-Hanson, the “best part” of their story came from Orlando Macias, the friend and police officer who woke them up that fiery night. They still had no idea of the fate of their home. Macias went into the fire-ravaged neighborhood, to the empty lot where their home once stood. The mailbox was still standing.

He sent a picture of himself holding the one envelope that had arrived and sent a picture of himself holding it with the message, “I’ve got your mail.”

It was a note Macias himself had sent a few days earlier, thanking them for their support of a fundraiser for special needs children.

The wedding team had two more events last week. Somehow, they all came together; smiling couples shared vows and toasted love.

“My team is very powerful,” Rogers-Hanson said. “We’ve been on the phone since Monday at 10 a.m. since before we knew if our houses were gone. For some reason survival kicked in, because we’re wedding planners. Our normal job is dealing with chaos. But it’s also keeping us sane. Because once we stop and think about what happened, we’re a mess.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5204.