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Sonoma State University reopens after closing during fires

Judy K. Sakaki, President of Sonoma State University is embraced by her husband Patrick McCallum and Emily Hinton, left, the student representative to the Sonoma State University Board of Trustees, Wednesday Oct. 18, 2017 prior to a ceremony honoring first responders. Sakaki and her husband were rescued by Santa Rosa firefighters in Fountaingrove during the Tubbs fire last week. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2017

CHRISTI WARREN,

Hundreds of students crowded into Sonoma State University’s Student Center on Wednesday night to thank first responders and celebrate the first full day of classes since the campus closed Oct. 9. On that day, when fires tore through Sonoma County, the flames stopped just one-quarter of a mile from campus.

In all, more than 50 members of the Sonoma State community — faculty, staff and students — lost homes in the blaze, including SSU President Judy Sakaki and her husband, Patrick McCallum, who fled their Fountaingrove home as fire overtook it about 4 a.m. Monday.

“Now we stand together at the beginning of a recovery,” she said. “We can see the devastation of the fires from our campus. Many of us experienced the devastation firsthand. Many of us still face uncertainty about the safety of our homes or the homes of our loved ones … unimaginable loss. Resilience, community, strength, care, love. Together we will rise, Sonoma State proud.”

In the back of the room hung a 20-foot banner that read “Thank You First Responders” and was covered in hundreds of multicolored signatures expressing messages of thanks.

“We also know that we will never return to the normal of the past,” said CSU Chancellor Timothy White, who was present for the campus reopening. “This catastrophic event, one really beyond imagination, leaves an indelible mark on all of us, some more than others.”

“Understand that this healing will take time, and that’s OK,” said Wilson Hall, president of the Associated Students organization. “But as long as we continue to support each other and have support from all across the CSU system, there is nothing we cannot overcome. Stay strong Sonoma.”

At 3 a.m. on Oct. 8, SSU established its emergency operations center, staffing it with 65 personnel around the clock for six days, said Provost and Executive Vice President Lisa Vollendorf. Some time that morning, administrators decided to cancel classes and Vice President for Administration Joyce Lopes, acting as incident commander, announced the decision. The university sent out a notification to students alerting them, and for the next three days, officials kept tabs as the flames inched closer and closer to campus.

Students were encouraged to leave, but at no point was campus evacuated.

“Wednesday was more like, it’s stable, but it’s not feeling good because it keeps changing,” Vollendorf said. “We just decided because the fires were growing and growing and growing, we needed to close campus.”

That’s when they sent out a notification saying campus would be closed, and by 8:30 p.m., if anyone remained, they were required to report to the student center. There were only two who did — one student and one staffer.

“Saying that makes me almost cry,” Vollendorf said. “We did a good job.”

With everyone back on campus, the university has set up a space in the library called the NomaCares Center, where those in need can get help with insurance, access counseling services and even process emergency withdrawals from staff members’ retirement funds.

Students and staff have collaborated to create a Facebook page where people can find rides, temporary housing and other assistance. And they’ve set up a fund, the money from which will go to support those in the Sonoma State community affected by the fires.

“Our community is strong. It is caring. And it is resilient,” Sakaki said. “And I am so grateful that we have one another. The fires impacted all of our lives. They showed no regard for anyone. They were indiscriminate. In the months to come, we will work together to process, collectively, the fire’s impact as we help our family members, friends and neighbors to rebuild.”

You can reach Staff Writer Christi Warren at 707-521-5205.. or christi.warren@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @SeaWarren.