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I stopped counting at 20 — which is the approximate number of friends whose homes were destroyed by fire before dawn on Monday. Call it a nightmare in slow motion — one friend and then another and another.

Some fretted for two days — hoping for the best, fearing for the worst — until the answer came. With evacuations in place, a few friends still don’t know if their houses remain.

The bad news often arrived in an email or on Facebook, sometimes with a photograph of what was left — a chimney perhaps, or a door frame, or the remains of the family car. Except for the memories, the houses were gone, leaving people to the business of rebuilding their lives.

Where to start? Shelter, furniture, pots and pans, clothes, books? Some got away with photographs and important documents. The rest got away with their lives, which became its own blessing in this horrific week. Still, it’s tough to lose a house furnished with love and a lifetime’s ambitions.

While they make plans to rebuild, many are left to wonder where they will live in the meantime. Does anybody know of a place to rent? This was a community suffering from a shortage of housing before hundreds of homes were destroyed in this week’s cataclysmic fires.

While the fires continue to burn, the outcome already is worse then we could have imagined. If one friend losing a home is a tragedy, what do we call it when hundreds of friends and neighbors find their homes reduced to toxic ash?

With so many people hurting, some of us have struggled to convey our sadness. So sorry. Thinking of you. No words. An abundance of compassion and sorrow can’t disguise the fact that there are only so many ways to say our hearts are breaking.

If we’re looking for leadership, the first in a series of town hall meetings on Tuesday offered reasons to be hopeful. The presentations were smart and useful — the kind of stuff required if Sonoma County wants to move past this disaster and begin the job of rebuilding.

Congressmen Mike Thompson and Jared Huffman promised they will lobby for help from the federal bureaucracy. State Sen. Mike McGuire demonstrated an almost encyclopedic knowledge of how a community finds help during and after a major disaster (knowledge likely gained during the Lake County fires of 2015). Five county supervisors divided up the task of detailing the nuts and bolts of how people can find the help they need.

McGuire said almost 5,000 firefighters are confronting the fires around Sonoma and Napa counties. We are grateful for all of the first responders from here and elsewhere — the firefighters, utility workers, police officers, volunteers, the countless public employees who train for other roles at a time of disaster. As climate change affects the number and ferocity of fires, states like California could show their gratitude by providing more resources for these brave men and women.

Her voice breaking, Supervisor Susan Gorin talked about the pain people are feeling: “Every part of my district has been affected by this fire and they still are … Kenwood, Glen Ellen, Sonoma, Bennett Valley is evacuated and houses are burning, Rincon Valley houses are burning, and I live in Oakmont, and my house is burning.” Gorin lost her home this week.

“I am one of you,” she said.

Radio station KSRO streamed the town hall meeting, prompting a Minnesota resident to post an outsider’s assessment on Facebook: “As I listen to the Santa Rosa, California Town Hall Meeting, I’m in awe of the leadership, communication, compassion …”

The most thoughtful advice may have come from Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey. His voice hoarse from fatigue — he had spent the day visiting evacuation shelters — he counseled Santa Rosans to understand what has happened to them: “I’d like all of us to acknowledge to ourselves and to each other that we’ve been through a trauma in the last couple of the days. … Some people have lost their lives, a lot of people have lost their property, many have lost their businesses. All of us have lost something in the last couple of days, and we need to accept that, understand that and also embrace what I think is going to be a new normal for a while.”

“This is a marathon,” he said. “We need to sustain what we’ve done in the last two days for a very long time.”

This is how it will go. We’ll all need to acknowledge a horrific and shocking event that will forever change us.

How it changes us will be determined by how we respond. If we are patient and generous and brave, if we understand that it will take years to rebuild, we can rally round the opportunities associated with change.

If we complain, if we decide it’s more than we can manage, it will become more than we can manage, and we will be left to our sadness.

Leadership will require folks who can make us believe we’re up to the task. If they can do that, all things are possible.

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.

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