Looming power shutoffs decreased attendance at Old Courthouse Square vigil

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The timing was not optimal.

In the midst of getting his department for a power shutoff expected to affect 24,000 PG&E customers in Santa Rosa, the city’s fire chief, Tony Gossner, put on his “Class A’s”, as firefighters refer to their dress blue uniforms, and prepared brief, respectful remarks for Tuesday’s somber ceremony in Old Courthouse Square.

Shortly after 5 pm, Santa Rosa firefighter Josh Gagnebin stuck a silver bell 24 times, once for each life lost two years earlier in Sonoma County wildfires.

After a pause, the bell was struck 20 more times, in honor of 20 others who died last October in fires that ravaged Mendocino, Napa and Yuba counties.

The pealing of the bell carried over a lawn far less crowded than it had been for a similar event one year ago. Some 400 people thronged the square that night, marking the first anniversary of the fires. On Tuesday evening, with power shutoff looming, attendance was much lighter – around 60 or 70 people.

“I was expecting a few more people,” said Cadence Moeller, who brought her 6-year-old son, Caleb. “But everyone’s getting ready” for the blackout.

The overlapping of the power shutoffs, due to dangerous conditions, and the second anniversary of the fires, left different people in different places, said Gossner.

“It’s a happy time for some” – who have moved back in, or are well along in their rebuilds – “and a really difficult time for others.”

Jessica Tunis would put her herself in the latter group. “I’m freaked out, for sure,” said Jessica Tunis, whose mother, Linda Tunis, died in her mobile home in Santa Rosa early in the morning of October 9, 2017.

“I’m going to the coast tomorrow. I got the day off from work a month ago. It’s Yom Kippur, so I’m going think about my Mom and say some prayers.”

Even as she mourned, she recruited. Tunis carried a clipboard with a sheath of pink forms she intended to hand out to friends and family members of people who perished in the fires. She is inviting them to work with her and the County Supervisors, Supervisor James Gore in particular, to erect another public memorial – “Possibly here, in the square,” she said – to those victims.

“I’m hoping we’ll have it done by this time next year,” she said.

While Tunis expressed hope, her friend Cathie Merkel seethed with an anger toward PG&E that has not begun to subside, two years after her mother, Sharon Rae Robinson, died in her home in the northern hills of Santa Rosa.

“My Mom died in the center of her house, because that’s the coolest place she could find,” said Merkel.

Three months after she lost her mother, Merkel’s 16-year-old daughter died of brain cancer.

“So, yeah, I’m trying to move through this portion of the grief process.”

Behind her, on the edge of the grass, Rosa Turner took in the vigil with her husband, Bill, and their labradoodle, Bear.

Her history with wildfires includes a close brush with a 1964 wine country blaze known as the Hanley Fire. When firefighters told her father to evacuate their new home on Highway 12, he refused.

“We got on the roof with hoses, and saved the house.”

Her brothers, Peter and Sal Smario, were not as fortunate in November, 2018. Both lost their homes when the Camp Fire devasated Paradise, Cal. Peter died two months later.

“It’s just a lot of loss,” said Rosa Turner. “So now, it’s October 8th, the wind’s coming up, and we all get terrified.”

“It’s a shame. We live on the edge of fear.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Ausmurph88

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