At ‘Thicker than Smoke' event, fire survivors share their stories

13 community members shared their stories of survival Friday night at the Green Music Center. The event continues Saturday night, headlined by musician Brad Paisley and actress Bonnie Hunt.|

Sonoma State University President Dr. Judy Sakaki woke up in the early morning of Oct. 9 to the fire alarm beeping in her Fountaingrove home. She saw massive flames, woke up her husband, Patrick McCallum, and the two ran out of the house and into the smoke outside.

From Hanover Place to Crown Hill to Parker Hill, they kept running. Sakaki was barefoot, and they often had to stop to catch their breath or shield themselves from the embers. But they kept going.

In the middle of the thick, black smoke, she saw two circles of light and thought she was hallucinating. It turned out to be the headlights of a car approaching with two Santa Rosa firefighters.

“I don’t remember screaming,” Sakaki said. But the firefighters remembered.

Sakaki was one of 13 community members who shared their stories of surviving the October wildfires in front of hundreds of people gathered Friday night at the Green Music Center. The event was the first of two “Thicker Than Smoke” events to raise funds for first responders who lost their homes it served to help with the community’s healing process 10 months after the most destructive wildfires in California history.

Six counselors from California Helping Outreach Possibilities Empowerment were available in the lobby for free counseling services to audience members as they relived the night of the firestorms.

“I think this event is a great way for people to connect, which is part of the healing process,” said Shannon Ryan, HOPE counselor and team lead. “Everyone is in different places in their healing.”

In Sonoma County, 5,319 homes were destroyed by the October wildfires, and 24 people died. One of those homes was of Santa Rosa firefighter Tony Niel, who shared his fire story Friday night. His was the car that saved Sakaki and her husband.

Before he found them, he had fled his Mark West Estates home with his wife and two sons, then age 12 and 10. He sent them to stay with relatives so he could work, but it was hard on the family.

“Dad, we don’t want you to go. We don’t want you to die,” his boys told him.

He reassured them through tears that he wouldn’t die, then went to find a rig at Fire Station 2 on Stony Point Road.

“I have a strong faith, and I feel like God put me there that night so I could meet up with Patrick and Judy,” Niel said.

Sakaki said she had difficulty sleeping after that night and saw flames every time she closed her eyes. In her dreams, she was always running, but not quite fast enough.

“This has been the most traumatic and difficult personal experience of my life,” Sakaki said. “But the devastation also did something else. It revealed to us the special power, the uniqueness, the heart of our North Bay community. Our resilience, our grit, our care for one another. These are elements that lift us up. They help us to rebuild - not just the physical rebuilding - but also, the emotional rebuilding.”

Gaye LeBaron, local historian and longtime Press Democrat columnist, spoke about how she witnessed the October wildlifes and the 1964 Hanley fire, which was eerily similar.

“We need to hear these stories from time to time she said. They are reminders that it has happened before and it can happen again, maybe sooner than later. This is a wonderful place to live. We can go off in any direction from the center of town and be in country, beautiful country, in less than half an hour. But this is a luxury that comes at a price, as nature reminds us all too often,” LeBaron said.

The other speakers were Dave Pokorny, host of the Sonoma County Spoken Word Festival; Brandon Jones, Sonoma County Sheriff’s deputy; Kirk Pappas, Kaiser physician-in-chief; Katy Mangan, host of Do Tell Story Swap, Santa Rosa; Jennifer Rink, Sonoma Academy student; Josh Weil, assistant physician-in-chief at Kaiser; Claire Mollard, veterinary acupuncturist; Tom Siragusa, assistant chief, San Francisco Fire Department; and Chris Ziemer, Sonoma Academy director of athletics and physical education.and Pat Kerrigan, KSRO radio host.

Event expenses were covered by donors, so ticket revenue was donated to first-responders who lost their homes in the wildfires through the Resilience Fund, a long-term relief fund launched by the Community Foundation Sonoma County in the immediate aftermath of the fires.

A “Thicker than Smoke” benefit concert with country singer Brad Paisley and actress Bonnie Hunt will take place at 7:30 p.m. today on the Weill Hall and Lawn at the Green Music Center in Rohnert Park. All concert ticket sales also will go toward the Resilience Fund.

You can reach Staff Writer Susan Minichiello at 707-521-5216 or On Twitter @susanmini.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.