Sonoma County residents resilient in the face of historically devastating fires

Sonoma Plaza smelled strongly of smoke Thursday afternoon as sunlight filtered through skies clouded by raging wildfire cast the city’s normally busy central square in a light orange glow.

Yet in several spots around Sonoma’s historic downtown, which was mostly empty around lunchtime, new signs offered a pointed rebuke to the natural disaster still burning in the Sonoma Valley and elsewhere in the county. “The love in the air is thicker than the smoke,” the signs read, adding the social media hashtag “Sonomaproud.”

One of those signs was found in the plaza along East Spain St., where a statue depicts General Vallejo sitting on a bench. The sign was posted on the bench underneath the left arm of the general, whose face someone had covered with a respirator mask.

Local resident Flori Bulatao stopped to take a photo of the altered statue. She called it a perfect statement amid the cluster of devastating fires that have been burning in Sonoma County all week.

Like the general, Bulatao was also wearing a mask. She said she lived about 2 miles away and evacuated herself days ago as flames burned a little too close for comfort. So far, her house is OK, but some friends have lost everything, she said.

“We’re still fighting - I am and my entire family,” Bulatao said. “I think Mother Nature is really, really testing us.”

Still, Bulatao remained hopeful her community would emerge resilient in the face of the destructive fires, now among the deadliest and most damaging in California history.

“We just have to,” she said.

While weathering days of an unrelenting natural disaster, the ultimate extent of which remains uncertain, residents across Sonoma County have responded with resilience and widespread generosity as they attempt to immediately begin the long recovery from still-burning wildfires.

“We are a community that will not let each other fall,” said Jennielynn Holmes, the Santa Rosa-based director of shelter and housing for Catholic Charities.

That resilient spirit has shown itself in ways large and small, including hundreds of thousands of dollars raised through a fund set up by Redwood Credit Union, The Press Democrat and state Sen. Mike McGuire, as well as other funds set up by Community Foundation Sonoma County and Santa Rosa Junior College.

Another fund organized by the Rotary of Sonoma Valley had raised more than $15,500 as of late Thursday afternoon - exceeding its initial $15,000 goal.

Food and water were common products of the community’s giving, as the county’s renowned restaurant industry rallied to provide free meals for fire victims and emergency responders. In the city of Sonoma, the Red Grape restaurant became a clearinghouse of sorts for donations, with flats of water and boxes of food stashed inside and outside, ready for distribution to responders and those in need.

Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore, whose north county district includes areas burned by the Tubbs and Pocket fires, said he’s seen the community rally in numerous ways, from residents opening up their homes to those displaced by fires - even if they’re strangers - to people finding camaraderie and invaluable resources in evacuation centers.

“I see community becoming stronger than ever,” Gore said. “In the midst of a nightmare, you’re having these bright, gleaming points of light, and I am trying to find a way to amplify those. Because I think as soon as the fire ends, those bright lights are the only things that will take us out of the sorrow.”

Standing in front of the rubble where two Fountaingrove homes once stood on Gardenview Circle, one that belonged to a friend and another where his in-laws lived, Santa Rosa resident Brian Woods estimated Thursday that about half his friends in the area either lost a house or had a family member who did.

“Everyone you talk to is asking how can you help and what can you do and you’re doing the same for them,” Woods said. “You know in the end it’s all going to be okay, it’s just right now it’s so devastating, it’s like, what do you do first?”

Sonoma County’s homeless residents and the people who provide services to them have also been affected by the fire, according to Holmes.

None of her organization’s shelters were damaged by fire, she said, but they did experience staffing and food shortages, both of which were alleviated thanks to local volunteer groups and help from other areas. Catholic Charities also received thousands of respirator masks after asking for them through a message on KSRO, Holmes said.

Street outreach teams then distributed masks to homeless people living outdoors who face health problems from the poor air quality caused by smoke from the fires. That process ended up bringing another 15 people into shelters, Holmes said.

The community support is palpable, Holmes said.

“That has certainly been evinced in everyone rallying to make sure that people who have been displaced -- and people who were already displaced - are taken care of.”

You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or On Twitter @thejdmorris.

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