The infernos that terrorized the North Bay in October cleaved 2017 in two.
The loss from those historic fires is so extensive, the trauma so deep and the task of rebuilding so daunting, that the year, looking back, is now divided. There were the nine months before powerful inland winds drove flames into rural and urban neighborhoods, leveling more than 8,000 structures in the nation’s costliest-ever wildfires. And there was everything since.
Our lives were upended and our region will never be the same.
Yet Sonoma County and its surroundings also marked brighter milestones this past year, including the start of commuter rail service after decades of planning and years of construction, and the reunification of Old Courthouse Square in downtown Santa Rosa. Both projects survived controversy and their realization required sustained political will and sacrifice by taxpayers.
Sonoma County, along with much of California and other parts of the nation, became a bastion of political resistance to the new administration of President Donald Trump, whose inauguration was followed a day later by the Women’s March series. In Santa Rosa, more than 5,000 people filled downtown streets in one of the largest local political demonstrations in memory.
Cannabis fans had much to cheer in 2017 as the industry moved closer to legal production and sale of marijuana for recreational use, a landmark, voter-approved shift sure to bring profound change to a region with deep roots in the medical and black-market trade.
Local law enforcement officers, meanwhile, announced their own surprising breakthrough: the arrest of a suspect in the notorious double murder that claimed the lives of a young couple sleeping on a Jenner beach in 2004.
There was little resolution, however, to the region’s chronic housing crisis. While several major projects have advanced, the fires dealt Sonoma County’s housing supply a severe blow, ratcheting up both sale prices and rents. Homeownership is growing further out of reach for many middle-class families, and displacement is a daily risk for many more low-income residents.
With hopes for a resilient year ahead, here then are Sonoma County’s top 10 stories of 2017.
1. October fires
Four hours. That’s all it took for gale-force winds to propel fire 12 miles from Calistoga at the north end of the Napa Valley, over rural ranches in the Mayacamas Mountains, through upscale homes of Fountaingrove, and across six lanes of Highway 101 into Coffey Park, a dense Santa Rosa neighborhood where devastation would later be described as “warlike.”
And the Tubbs fire, though now California’s most destructive, was not the only inferno of the night, when big blazes simultaneously erupted late Oct. 8 across the North Bay. Together, they would account for 40 deaths, including 24 people in Sonoma County, nine in Mendocino, and seven in Napa. The average age of the victims: 70.
They also displaced tens of thousands of residents, destroying more than 6,000 homes — 5,130 of them in Sonoma County — and more than 150 businesses. Insured losses top $9 billion.
The disaster, unstoppable in its first hours, was confronted by waves of firefighters, police officers, residents and caregivers who put themselves in danger to alert and evacuate neighborhoods. All told, about 100,000 people in Sonoma County — one in every five residents — were under mandatory or advisory evacuation orders as the siege stretched on.