Sonoma County wedding planner loses own home in fire, but saves the dreams of young couples
The cellphone, set on silent, buzzed insistently 17 times in the middle of the night Oct. 9 before Brittany Rogers-Hanson finally woke up in her newly rented home in Fountaingrove and picked up the message to evacuate.
Outside, explosions pounded like mortar fire over the hillside enclave.
Because one friend, Santa Rosa Police Officer Orlando Macias, didn’t give up on her, Rogers-Hanson is alive. She had ?20 minutes to gather up her husband, Eric, her three kids, her daughter’s friend who was with them for a sleepover, her son’s service dog, her father’s watch and her aunt’s heirloom sapphire ring, and get into the car, all while taking precious moments to wake up 15 other families they knew in the area, putting out phone calls, leaning on their car horn and banging on doors. She called one family 20 times.
An eerie drive to the bottom of Fountaingrove Parkway, during which they hit a fallen tree, ended at the on-ramp to Highway 101, where they faced another freakish sight - 50 cars headed straight for them scurrying south in the northbound lane. The Fountaingrove Inn and historic Round Barn had not yet burned. Thirty minutes after they left, their own home would be engulfed.
One motorist rolled down his window and shouted “Turn around. The freeway is on fire!”
That’s how Rogers-Hanson’s week began. For the 38-year-old wedding planner there would be no opportunity over the next two weeks to even contemplate her own loss. She had seven weddings to salvage immediately - 27 before the end of the year.
For the last two weeks she’s pinballed around between motel rooms, her car, a tiny office in Windsor and eventually a friend’s weekend home in Healdsburg. She’s worn a patchwork of unrelated garments frantically pulled from racks at Target and a care package of hand-me-downs from an aunt, who thoughtfully included a pair of black slacks and a blouse.
“At that point I was wearing sweats, no bra and a hoodie ,” said Hanson,.
In the two weeks since the fires broke out, Rogers-Hanson and her tiny team from Run Away With Me weddings, including chief wedding planner Kalika Ansel, who was burned out of her townhouse across from the Luther Burbank Center, have worked like bats out of hell. They scrambled to move two weddings from Napa and Sonoma to Novato at the last minute as the fires raged, graying skies with strangling smoke even over areas unaffected by flames.
“Our phones,” she said, “were blowing up.”
Throughout that, she combed Craigslist for a rental, booked motel rooms for fellow refugees, got her 15-year-old autistic son on a plane to his grandma’s house in Spokane, Washington, helped arrange a long-awaited dance for his school, Anova, which burned down along with other parts of the Luther Burbank Center, and coordinated the delivery of converted storage containers, used at Burning Man, and that were donated to provide temporary housing for up to 76 displaced Anova teachers and families with special-needs children.
In what might seem like the icing on the cake, the weddings rescue for Rogers-Hanson was all about saving what is supposed to be the best day of a couple’s lives, for anxious clients who were depending on her.
But there was a larger mission. It was also about saving her business and the livelihoods of a multitude of small contractors who depend on the Wine Country’s allure as a wedding destination. And October, with its balmy days and harvest vineyard backdrops, is the most popular month of the year to get hitched .
Her story is but one of thousands of dramatic instances of everyday people stepping up under impossible conditions during the firestorms to keep the moving parts of their lives and businesses going .
“I’m self-funded. I haven’t bought a house here because I put all my money back into my business so I can afford to live here,” she said. “My clients pay me and I pay all my vendors. Literally these people paid me the full total for their weddings.”
Hit with three cancellations, her team of four kicked into gear to salvage what was left and keep any more from canceling. In one day alone Rogers-Hanson worked the phones to soothe the fears of 37 brides wondering if their weddings were still on. Each canceled event has the potential for setting off a cascade of suffering for the florists, cake bakers, hair stylists, wedding photographers, caterers, musicians and other people whose income depends on Wine Country weddings and events.
Rogers-Hanson’s husband Eric owns a photo booth and wedding photography business. But his equipment was in a storage unit near Santa Rosa’s K-mart, which burned. They couldn’t get to the locker to even find out if it survived the fire, much less access anything that might be inside.