Kindergartner Khush Nagpal holds up his left hand and wiggles all five fingers to share his age with visitors at an emergency shelter in Sonoma. It’s his birthday — his fifth birthday — and the party is about to begin.
Khush beams as a group of new friends sings “Happy Birthday” and applauds enthusiastically, barely paying attention to the dozens of nearby cots lined in rows in a cafeteria-pavilion at Sonoma Valley High School, which has been turned into a fire evacuation center.
The celebrants include evacuees like Khush and volunteer workers, all impacted by the deadly fires that have been ravaging Sonoma Valley. For a few moments, all that’s relevant is a little boy and his makeshift birthday party.
When Kenwood evacuee Linda Carniglia discovered Khush was about to have a birthday and couldn’t celebrate with his family at home as planned, she went into Fairy Godmother mode.
“Oh no, we’re not going to cancel a party,” said Carniglia, 63. “I’m just glad everybody pulled together.”
Carniglia ordered a decorative vanilla cake with buttercream frosting that Safeway readily donated. Those who’d barely known Khush and his family opened their wallets, gathered a handful of gifts and a mylar balloon, and placed juice boxes, jack-o’-lantern cookies and plates atop a colorful tablecloth.
Sonoma Mayor Rachel Hundley was on hand, among those wearing plastic fire chief hats provided by Sonoma Valley Fire and Rescue Authority, no detail too small for the celebration.
A film crew from a Sacramento television station reporting on the fires captured the happy event to share with viewers — a big moment for a kid who only needs one hand to reveal his age.
The first gift Khush opened brought a huge smile of approval — a set of pint-sized emergency vehicles, including a fire engine with a ladder, just like the ones so familiar lately around Sonoma Valley.
Khush immediately tested out the red engine with his new buddy, Sonoma Valley High School senior Kole Morgan, 17, one of a group of classmates and Justin Siena High School students and recent grads volunteering at the evacuation center.
With no school in session, football practices canceled and homecoming festivities delayed, the varsity Dragons tight end and defensive end figured his time could be well-spent helping others in his community who lost homes or were under evacuation orders.
“I want everyone to show up and help and do what they can,” Kole said. “It’s definitely really been scary for me. Obviously, I don’t want to see my community go through this.”
A fourth-generation Sonoma Valley resident, Kole understands the sense of fear and disbelief the fires have brought to his hometown.
His mother’s house in a residential neighborhood in Sonoma city limits was under evacuation orders, and emergency responders with sirens and bullhorns had recently roared near the town’s beloved historic downtown Plaza warning people of the nearing fire and the need to leave.
The surreal happenings were softened a bit by the simplicity and joy of a little boy’s birthday party.
Carniglia said the party provided some normalcy to those gathered at the high school, where more than 350 people had sought safety and shelter from the blazes.
“For me, honestly it was good to do,” Carniglia said. “Everybody won. Everybody likes a party.”
The festivities took her mind away from her home in Kenwood, where she grows specialty microgreens for chefs and bakers. She has lived in Sonoma County nearly 45 years, 24 of them in Kenwood.
Carniglia was making a delivery with her 20-year-old daughter to Boyes Hot Springs the day the fires broke out, soon discovering they couldn’t drive home north on Highway 12 because of road closures.
She’d later hear her home survived the fire, but at the time she wasn’t certain if her greenhouse or the quarter-acre she farms sustained damage, or if changing conditions affected her house.
Khush’s parents, Vandana and Pawan Nagpal, were grateful for Carniglia and everyone else who made cards and contributed to the modest but heartfelt celebration.
Originally from New Delhi, India, the family of five — Khush has a baby brother and a big sister — was under evacuation orders from their Fetters Hot Springs home in The Springs area of northern Sonoma Valley. Khush’s mom managed to grab a special birthday outfit for her son that relatives had sent from India.
The long-anticipated affordable apartment complex where they live, Fetters Apartments, opened only earlier this year.
Khush’s mother said the thoughtfulness of strangers left her “speechless.” That her son’s birthday cake was decorated with a “Cars” movie theme was, well, icing on the cake.
“Any kind of firetruck, dump truck, any cars and he’s happy,” she said.
Khush’s 11-year-old sister Palak confirmed her brother’s happiness. Although she reported, grinning, that he’s sometimes “very naughty,” she said he “adores cars and has a lot at home. Anything cars.”
The party was complete with a showing of Khush’s favorite movie, “Finding Nemo,” presented in a darkened classroom in the school’s state-of-the-art Media Arts Program, where Khush settled into a comfy beanbag chair for the Disney-Pixar film.
Peter Hansen, who runs the program and is the city’s honorary Treasure Artist of 2017, was on hand showing movies to evacuees, one of dozens of Sonoma Valley Unified School District employees staffing the shelter. Several, like Hansen, weren’t certain about damage or destruction at their own homes.
Perhaps the hardest part of Khush’s birthday was deciding how to spend his time.
“Finding Nemo” wasn’t quite over when Altimira Middle School language arts teacher Katherine Wuopio was setting up an art session to make thank-you banners for firefighters, law enforcement and volunteers aiding the community.
The art session sounded like fun to Khush, who also enjoys soccer and says his favorite part of school is “playing, like on the playground.”
He paused momentarily to send a message to everyone who made his day special. He’d really hoped for a cake for his birthday — and there it appeared away from home, with diecast “Cars” characters Lightning McQueen and Cruz Ramirez on top, cooler than cool.
“I want to say thank you to everyone for getting my cake,” Khush said.
Contact Towns Correspondent Dianne Reber Hart at firstname.lastname@example.org