Santa Rosa leaders, their homes gone, focus on recovery
Santa Rosa is still battling the inferno that engulfed it early Monday morning and remains an existential threat.
But the city is slowly coming to grips with the fact that many of those who lost everything in the fire are the very community leaders - CEOs, attorneys, doctors, judges, philanthropists, wine industry executives and government officials - who’ve had an outsized influence in shaping a city still very much in peril.
In some cases, they lived modestly, in tract-home neighborhoods like Coffey Park that have been obliterated. In many others, they lived in large, luxury hillside homes in natural surroundings that were tranquil until they turned terrifying.
Like thousands of city residents, people like Susan Gorin, county supervisor; Willie Tamayo, co-founder and vice president of La Tortilla Factory; Bill Carle, attorney and Santa Rosa school board member; Ben Stone, director of the Sonoma County Economic Board; and Karissa Kruse, president of Sonoma County Winegrowers, found themselves fleeing for their lives Monday.
They are just a few names on a growing list of community leaders who lost their homes, also including Judy Sakaki, Sonoma State University president; Sonoma County Superior Court judges Jamie Thistlethwaite and Elliot Daum; Levi Leipheimer, retired pro cyclist; Hugh Futrell, Santa Rosa developer; Nick Frey, former president of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission; and the top executives at the county’s three hospitals, Mike Purvis, CEO of Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital; Todd Salnas, president of St. Joseph Health Sonoma County; and Judy Coffey, area manager for Kaiser’s operations in Sonoma and Marin counties.
In many ways, they are better able to cope financially with such a blow than fellow residents with lesser means. And because of their deep ties to the community, they have strong support networks of generous friends and family who will help them recover and rebuild.
But right now they find themselves, like so many others, homeless.
Susan Gorin was in Colorado to be with her daughter for the birth of her grandchild Sunday night when the wildfires ignited and burned with profound speed.
Leaving her family behind, the 1st District county supervisor got back onto a plane and returned to Sonoma County, but evacuation orders prevented her from reaching her home in Oakmont.
Tuesday night, she received a call from state Sen. Mike McGuire, who was in front of her house while touring the area and called to alert her it had started to burn.
“He said, ‘What do you need, I’ll break in,’?” Gorin said.
She gave him the code and told him where to find family photo albums, a computer, a few pieces of meaningful jewelry and an extra jacket for the cold. McGuire, Santa Rosa City Councilman Chris Rogers, CHP Commander Michael Palacio and others ran into her home and got out before it burned to the ground.
Wednesday, smoke still rose from the charred debris - an ironing board, twin chimneys, a water heater and a porcelain bird on a patio table. But the night Gorin and her husband lost their home, they gained a picture perfect granddaughter, Corrina Nadine Taylor.
“Like a phoenix out of the ashes my granddaughter was born,” Gorin said.
Bill Carle and his wife, Nancy, built their first home in Fountaingrove in 1985. They later moved into a newer home on Blue Sage Court, where they were sitting on their couch researching hotels for a December vacation Sunday evening. Just a few hours later, the unimaginable happened.
“We lived on that hill for 33 years, now both houses are gone,” Carle said Wednesday afternoon. “It’s unbelievable.”
The prominent attorney and longtime school board member smelled smoke around 10:30 p.m., but wasn’t too worried until he drove to the top of the hill and saw a distant glow in the northeast sky.
He called friends, like developer Hugh Futrell, who lived over Rincon Ridge on Wallace Road, and tried to keep tabs on the fire’s progress, which seemed to double in size every time. They started packing, and Carle raced down the hill to get gas. But when a fallen tree limb forced him to drive over the sidewalk to get around it, he worried he’d never get up the hill again, and turned back.
They escaped to safety, and have been staying in a friend’s home. Futrell lost his home, as well. Carle says he’s overwhelmed by the community’s generosity, and optimistic about the future. But while the firefight rages on, the city seems to be divided between those who’ve lived through the firestorm, and those living in fear of it.
“We’re done. We’ve lost everything. And yet we’re living with people who are wondering whether they are going to lose everything,” Carle said. “It’s very weird.”
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