Close to Home: A one-year journey that began with running for our lives

After the fire

“Reflections: After the Fire,” an exhibit of items salvaged from the fire, opens with a public reception at 4 p.m. Oct 17 in the Sonoma State University library art gallery.

When I think about the fires on this one-year anniversary, I still feel a deep sense of loss and sadness. But I'm also filled with gratitude. As some of you know, my husband and I lost everything on Oct. 9 - everything but our memory of those terrible hours.

It began with our smoke detector blaring at 4:03 a.m. When I jumped out of bed, I grabbed my robe and a battery-operated lantern. All I could see was flames on the first floor. I screamed for my husband, Patrick, and we raced downstairs and out the front door.

At first, I thought it was just our Fountaingrove home that was burning. But our entire neighborhood was on fire - our porch, the trees, our garage and the houses around us. So many things were exploding. It felt as if we were in a scene from a terrible movie.

We ran through the smoke, holding hands and pulling each other along as we went. But we weren't sure if we were even running in the right direction. The street was a river of red embers, blackening and burning our bare feet.

We ran for about a mile. Just when we thought that we might not make it, in the middle of the thick black smoke, we saw two little circles in the distance. We soon realized that those faint circles were headlights and, thankfully, they were getting bigger.

They were headlights of a Ford Expedition driven by Santa Rosa firefighters Tony Niel and Drew Peterson, who were making one last loop through an area they believed had already been evacuated.

That was a moment that I will never forget. When we jumped into the Expedition, I was still clutching the lantern. Don't ask me why. Unfortunately, I left it behind in the truck, but Niel later returned it to me, and now it's a special souvenir of our rescue.

It stands for many things for me now. It's a symbol of the shining goodwill of so many people who helped us when we were left with nothing. It's also a reminder of those headlights, cutting through the smoke and flames of that morning and the darkness of those moments. Most of all, it's a reminder of those first responders who put themselves in harm's way, even after losing their own homes, as was the case with Tony Niel.

He later told us that we were about one minute away from becoming fire victims No. 45 and 46 in Sonoma County.

The devastation of those fires was terrifying and uncompromising. But it also revealed to us the special power, the uniqueness, the heart of our North Bay community.

This was evident in those early hours, beginning with the woman at the evacuation center at Finley Community Center who got a pair of socks out of the gym bag in her car so that I would have something - anything - to put on my feet. It continued with people like Doug Van Dyke of E.R. Sawyer Jewelers in Santa Rosa, who helped us sift through the ashes of our home, finding only a single tiger's eye bead that he polished and transformed into a beautiful necklace that I now treasure.

And it continued with many others, including those who took part in our two-day “Thicker than Smoke” event at Sonoma State University in August, which included storytelling and music. In all, those events raised nearly $200,000 to support first responders who suffered losses in the fire.

In so many ways, our community is like my bead - forever changed but beautiful at its core. For Patrick and myself, we are, perhaps, a bit wiser and more compassionate, cautious and sensitive. But more than anything, we are grateful - not so much for what we have but who we have - in our lives and in our community.

Thank you for being there for all 80 of us at Sonoma State - including faculty, staff and students - who lost our homes. Thank you for lifting us and one another. Together, we will continue to heal and rise.

Judy K. Sakaki is president of Sonoma State University. She and her husband, Patrick McCallum, now live in Bennett Valley. Some items that were salvaged from her home will be included in “Reflections: After the Fire” an exhibit in the SSU library art gallery. The public is invited to a reception at the exhibit at 4 p.m. Oct. 17, marking the anniversary of when Sonoma State reopened nine days after the fires began.

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After the fire

“Reflections: After the Fire,” an exhibit of items salvaged from the fire, opens with a public reception at 4 p.m. Oct 17 in the Sonoma State University library art gallery.

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