How survivors forged unexpected friendships after the 2017 wildfires
The North Bay firestorm claimed 40 lives and destroyed 6,187 homes. And yet, some good came of it. In rebuilding their lives, many survivors found an unexpected bounty: the friendships forged in the aftermath of the disaster — bonds stronger than many had known before Oct. 9, 2017.
“We’ve had so much loss and tragedy,” said a Coffey Park resident who lost her home of 30 years, “but we’ve gained so much emotionally.”
Bent, but not broken
Jim Scally is still mourning the 150-year-old oak tree he lost in the Tubbs fire that also claimed his house on Crimson Lane in Coffey Park.
“We bought the house because of that tree,” he said.
Having salvaged a section of its trunk, however, he intends to turn cuts of it into bar tables and other oak items, which he will give to friends. pla
“People will be saying, ‘Oh God, not another cheese tray from Scally,’” he predicted, with a grin, during a recent tour of the neighborhood.
Bar tables and cheese trays fall into a category Scally and his wife, LuAnn, have dubbed “upsides” — unlikely ways their lives have improved since the Tubbs fire laid them low.
For instance, Scally said, “All the sudden, we no longer needed to have a garage sale. And we can use all the profanity we want, and no one cares.”
Some upsides are more real than others. The gifts they value most can be counted during a slow ride around the neighborhood with Scally, who wasn’t exactly a shrinking violet before the Tubbs fire.
After it, however, his circle of friends has expanded threefold, like the heart of the Grinch who stole Christmas.
“Hey Gary!” he shouts to a man spray-painting baseboards in his garage. Gary smiles and waves.
Heading south on Kerry Lane, Scally drives past the home of May Salido. On Dec. 8, 2018, the day she and her three children returned to Coffey Park, he welcomed them back, after introducing himself as “the Griswold guy.”
Some of Scally’s renown comes from his custom of decking his house with more than 2,000 lights every Christmas, ala Clark Griswold in “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.”
“I know your house,” she said. He told her where she could get a deal on a storage shed. They’ve become friends.
Further south on Kerry, he parked the car and bounded out to embrace a woman standing in her driveway.
“Hello, dear friend,” said Pamela Van Halsema, who he met through neighborhood support group Coffey Strong, and who excitedly invited him in to see her nearly finished home. They chatted about light fixtures and tile backsplashes, and then things got real.
“This fire bent me the most I’ve ever been bent,” he shared with her. “But I’m thankful, ’cause it forced me to really look at my life.’”
The staggering material losses of the fire survivors have a psychological parallel inside them.
“Not only has their physical life been rebuilt,” said Doreen Van Leeuwen, a Santa Rosa-based marriage and family therapist, “but they are being rewired neurologically from this experience.”
The defenses victims had built up, the masks they wore to represent themselves, were suddenly removed.
“They’ve been forced to recreate themselves,” she said. “I think that’s why some people are more open” to authentic communication, genuine friendships, and, well, hugs.