Under cloudless skies, some 1,200 people gathered Saturday at Santa Rosa Junior College to share in a moment that harnessed collective grief and gratitude, recognized sacrifice and rallied support for the long recovery ahead in the wake of the North Bay’s deadly and devastating wildfires.
The event at Bailey Field, billed as a Day of Remembrance, included speeches and messages of thanks from federal, state and local officials, plus music, moments for faith, a few laughs and tears.
One especially poignant tribute came when 42 chimes from a bell sounded — one for each person killed across Northern California in the fires this month — plus one more for the people still missing.
Standing ovations were frequent. The crowd, spread across the field in folding chairs and in the grandstands, offered loud and hearty thanks to first responders and others who’d played key roles in the unprecedented disasters.
Many in the crowd had lost homes.
Ken and Mari Wright sat in the last row of chairs on the field. They wore hats to shade them from the strong midday sun. Their home across the street from Cardinal Newman High School is gone.
“We just felt it was something we needed to do,” said Ken Wright, explaining why they’d come and how they knew the disaster was much larger than their loss.
Others came weighed down by “survival guilt” and voiced their wish to show solidarity with fire victims.
Peri Parrott’s east Santa Rosa home was sandwiched between two fires, but she came out all right. Shaded by her purple umbrella, she felt strongly about showing up Saturday.
“This is my community,” she said. “This is my town and these are my people.”
The two‑hour event in the college’s football and track stadium included a stage for public officials and speakers. Their backdrop was a grove of majestic oak trees and a huge blue banner stretched between the gridiron goal posts that read, “Rebuilding Together Sonoma County Strong.”
At the other end of the field, a massive American flag hung high, from the end of the city’s ladder truck.
“It’s events like these that teach us how fragile life is,” Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano said in his address to the crowd. “This one was bad. It’s not over. It’s going to be month, years. The community will be different.”
“People ran from their homes in the middle of the night while their cars were on fire,” he said, punctuating the terror of the Oct. 8 firestorm’s first hours.
Before the gathering Saturday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, with five other members of Congress, toured parts of Sonoma and Napa counties leveled by the raging wildfires, including Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park. The infernos in Sonoma County claimed at least 23 lives and almost 7,000 structures, most of them homes, with damage estimated at more than $3 billion.
Pelosi, who described the destruction as “unfathomable,” presented a flag which had flown over the nation’s capital to Santa Rosa Fire Chief Tony Gossner and pledged support for the recovery.
“We will do everything we can and be with you as long as it takes us to meet your needs,” Pelosi said from the stage. She was accompanied by Sonoma County’s two congressmen, Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena and Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael.