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‘Day of Remembrance’ for wildfires in Santa Rosa a show of shared grief, thanks, hope

Santa Rosa Fire Capt. Keith Jeffus rang the firefighter bell 42 times on behalf of the residence who passed away in the recent fires plus one extra ring for the ones still missing at the Sonoma County Day of Remembrance on SRJC's Bailey Field on Saturday, October 28, 2017. (photo by John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

RANDI ROSSMANN,

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.”

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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.

Gov. Jerry Brown, in Sacramento, declared a statewide day of remembrance and ordered flags to be flown at half-staff. Brown’s director of the Office of Emergency Services, Mark Ghilarducci, announced the proclamation and promised state support for recovery efforts.

Giordano, Gossner and Cal Fire Chief Ken Pimlott thanked the community for the outpouring of support for first responders and praised firefighters, law enforcement and other groups for their relentless work and the risks they took on to save others.

In all, 21 fires broke out that windy night three weeks ago across Northern California, including five major blazes in Sonoma and Napa counties. Three of those five are now regarded as among California’s top 10 most destructive wildfires, with the deadly Tubbs fire at number 1.

“The night of Oct. 8 we were all tested,” said Gossner, who paused a few times in his comments to hold back his emotions. Firefighters from 382 agencies across 14 states — and a team from Australia — responded to help, Gossner said. Eighty-two law enforcement agencies sent reinforcements, he said.

“I have never been more proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with all of you. You did it with courage, humility and you did it with empathy and compassion,” Gossner said. “I’m so proud of every one of you.”

Dispatchers, Giordano and Gossner said, were the disaster’s “unsung heroes,” taking panicked calls from people trapped by fire and talking them through to safety.

“Dispatchers stayed on the line with everyone until the line had gone silent,” Gossner said. “That is remarkable.”

Billy Andre, pastor of The Bridge church in Santa Rosa, was among four religious leaders on hand. He wore a borrowed suit and sunglasses from his congregation’s lost-and-found.

He recounted how his wife, three children and two dogs fled their neighborhood as flames approached, grabbing dog food and three photo albums — two of which later turned out to be empty, one of many projects they’d once had intended to complete.

Andre said the grief and the sorrow are “all part of the healing process.”

Nancy Bacon and her family, who lost their Coffey Park home, stood at the ceremony feeling “forever changed” and grateful for a gathering she described as “Sad, but great.”

“I think knowing we’re not alone, there are so many of us, it made a difference,” Bacon said. “So many of us.”

Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey, prior to the event, said he had pressed Pelosi and other officials to deliver on their pledges of financial support. “We need the U.S. government to let us be flexible and creative with those resources,” he said.

Afterwards, the mayor said that the region’s recovery depended on sustained solidarity

“We need to hang on to the unity and the togetherness,” he said “We’re all going to really need each other.”

you can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 707‑521-5412 or randi.rossmann@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter@rossmannreport.