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Gaye LeBaron: Heroes in fire’s wake and the housing dilemma that lies ahead

Fire races through Annadel State Park above the Oakmont near Santa Rosa, CA. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

GAYE LEBARON,

The Press Democrat Hero Medals have been found. The hero in this instance is my colleague Chris Smith who graciously accepted them from me, probably about the same time I left the office 17 years ago.

The difference is that he remembered that he had them. And I forgot.

So … now I can, with Chris’s kind permission, hand out a couple of the few remaining from the Volkerts’ stash of 50 years ago. There are literally hundreds who have earned one. But I am going to settle for Pat Kerrigan at KSRO and Robert Pellegrini at Tuttle’s, each of them representing others in their professions — and in Robert’s case the broader medical community, who have gone the extra miles. Sheriff Rob Giordano will get one too. If I can ever catch up with him.

I only wish my old friend and boss Art Volkerts was still here to say, “See, I told you so.”

There hasn’t been time to assess all the damage to parkland in Sonoma County. But I did hear the sad report that three-quarters of Trione-Annadel Park burned, which brought the late Henry Trione to the front of our mind — with contradicting thoughts.

One is that we’re glad in a sad way that he isn’t here to see what has happened to “his” park. The other, more profound, is how much we could use his sound leadership at this time

I’m sure, were he here, he would be the first to remind us that trails are under the debris and can be cleared. And, best of all, forests and plants grow back — always more quickly than we had imagined.

As a land conservation expert I know has been heard to say, “Nature heals itself.”

Hold that thought.

We not-so-dependable humans have to take a cue from nature, being faced with an enormous healing project for our communities.

Housing is the first priority and our leaders are scrambling to find the right pathway among the ashes and debris.

I am reminded — historians are continuously reminded; it’s our tragic “flaw” — of the months at the start of World War II when both army and navy personnel swarmed over Santa Rosa.

The demand for housing the wives and families of the fliers at the two airfields rose within months of Pearl Harbor and seemed at first hopeless in a town where single people still lived in boardinghouses and residence hotels. Few if any apartment houses existed.

The answers came quickly in spare rooms left empty by sons gone to war, rented out to G.I. wives; and apartments created on the upper floors of some of the larger homes — with outside staircases and entrances; in converted garages, and full-time occupancy in every auto court and summer home on the Russian River and in the Springs area of the Sonoma Valley.

Thinking outside the box is an overworked expression, but it applies. We have to look at every building with a seasonal occupancy as a possible winter shelter — even those long rows of buildings at the back of the fairgrounds that only get used at Fair time. It’s amazing what some creative carpentry can accomplish.

Meanwhile, this county is filled with creative people, some who have spent years studying new and better ways to live on the land. This could be their finest hour.

There have been a couple of letters to the editor this week suggesting that some good old-fashioned sirens, strategically placed around town would solve some of the early warning problems that cost lives in the firestorm that swept the north end of town.

One of the letter writers suggested that our 21st century citizenry relies too heavily on social media. For absolutely everything.

For those of a certain age, a siren was an all-too-familiar sound. It told us the time at noon and five o’clock. It called in volunteer firemen, telling them where the fire was using coded sequences of short blasts. And, way back, it was the air raid siren, tested daily in the first frightening months of World War II.

Sirens, fire bells and whistles were part of daily life. They got our attention in daylight and wakened us at night.

I think the letter writers are on to something. A siren that let go loudly on the Fountaingrove firehouse before the flames consumed it might have wakened the soundest sleepers in time.