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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

Daren Bellach, chief of the Kenwood Fire Protection District, receives a lot of hugs and kisses from people around town these days, and so does his small, mostly part-time group of firefighters after saving residents from the region’s historic fires.

On Sunday afternoon, the tiny Sonoma Valley community had the chance to formally thank the crews most responsible for preventing even more destruction to their homes, businesses and churches. Beyond tables set up for a potluck-style lunch of pastas, salads and an assortment of desserts, signs produced by schoolchildren presented the prevailing sentiment: “Firefighters Rock” and “Heroes wear badges.”

“I stand here today because of those firefighters,” Rev. Karen King, pastor of Kenwood’s St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church, told the droves of attendees. “Remember when you celebrate your families and your own lives to celebrate the lives of the firefighters — saints among us, who were patient, brave and true.”

Hundreds arrived at Plaza Park around lunchtime in a show of support that rivaled Kenwood’s annual Fourth of July party, all to honor firefighters who watch over a 40-square-mile district of roughly 4,000 residents.

The Nuns fire forced evacuation of many of them and ultimately leveled nearly 300 structures, 140 of which were homes.

The losses were far worse than any worst-case scenario firefighters had trained for, Bellach said, and could have been even greater if not for the quick and steadfast efforts of the local fire department.

Veteran disaster managers with the Federal Emergency Management Agency had never before witnessed fire damage on this scale — nor the equally powerful upwelling of community support for first responders, said Supervisor Susan Gorin, who represents the county’s 1st District and lost her Oakmont home in the fire.

“The amount of devastation we have in Sonoma County is staggering, even to FEMA,” Gorin said. “They have never seen the amount of devastation that we have endured. What they have also never seen is an entire community and communities and county coming together to support the first responders.”

Donations, letters of encouragement and citizens stepping up to cook and clean for the firehouse flooded in almost immediately after the blaze started on Oct. 8 at approximately 10:30 p.m.

Kenwood firefighters worked for almost a week straight without a break until reinforcements finally arrived.

Bellach found himself momentarily overcome with emotion Sunday, leaving him struggling for words, as he recalled the outpouring of support from residents.

“Look at this park, look how many people are here,” he said, scanning the throng following a standing ovation. “We could not have done what we did without you — without what all of you did. I thank you, from the bottom of my heart.”

Between renditions of “America the Beautiful” and Judy Garland’s “Over the Rainbow,” speakers noted the event was about a celebration of community, but also sheer survival.

Some were luckier than others, several acknowledged. For those who lost everything, friends and family were there to lend a warm embrace, and handmade quilts from around the state were gifted as the hardest hit victims begin their individual healing processes.

“Each of us is here for different reasons with different feelings,” said Rev. Jim Fish, pastor of Kenwood Community Church, which was spared and remains in the park’s background. “We are here to express our gratitude; others to express their grief. This is part funeral, part somber and private reflection and part to receive thanks from neighbors.”

Gorin said the valley’s resilient spirit and determination to rebuild is what will, eventually, allow the Sonoma County fires to be a footnote in history books, rather than permanent scars on its vineyard and oak-laden landscape.

“It’s pretty disheartening for those of us who love these hills so much. But we absolutely need to be committed to maintain the type of community that we want to be,” she said. “And, ya know, spontaneous hugs are really important these days.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or at kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

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