Gaye LeBaron: Wine Country fires have produced legion of heroes

Rincon Valley firefighters Andrew Kent, left, and Corey Larson extinguish a fire that occured at The Overlook at Fountaingrove apartment complex after the Tubbs Fire burned through north Santa Rosa, California on Monday, October 9, 2017. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)


In the dim reaches of the distant past, when the population of Santa Rosa was about 135,000 fewer than today, we awarded Press Democrat Hero Medals when the occasion arose.

Editor Art Volkerts had a drawer filled with them. “Heroes aren’t born, LeBaron,” he told me when I raised a quizzical eyebrow at being told to get a photographer and take a medal to someone in Windsor. “Heroes are made and newspapers make them and don’t you forget that,” was his parting shot.

It was a passing fancy. When Art cleaned out that drawer several years later and tossed them out, he gave me some. I don’t know where they are and I’m sorry because I would be handing them around like after-dinner mints.


We have our obvious heroes — the several thousand firefighters and officers of the law in 50 different uniforms rescuing people and pets and what structures that are salvageable.

There’s an “interim” sheriff, Rob Giordano, who has consistently sounded like the real thing — a calm voice of reason.


The behind-the-firelines include pharmacists working 72-hour stretches to replace the thousands of medications — most in the “staying-alive” category — that were left to burn after frantic evacuations.

Lines have been out the door and down the block at Tuttle’s Doyle Park Pharmacy in my neighborhood where Robert Pellegrini, the third-generation owner of the oldest drug store in town, is earning his medal.

There are the doctors who have no homes — 55 of them from Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital alone — who are keeping their offices open, some without their support staff, to take the pressure off the emergency rooms.

Heroes all around. Five of the seven houses closest to me in my 1940s neighborhood have displaced families living with them, some two or three.

Even the people without homes to go back to are helping others, dishing food at the fairgrounds, chopping vegetables at the food bank. Many are kids, students with no classes to attend, learning what good people do when the going gets rough.


I would give a medal, with proper pomp and ceremony, to KSRO’s Pat Kerrigan.

Pat’s been on the air for — what is it now — seven, eight, nine straight days? Still dishing good solid information. The word rumor has not passed her lips, except to deny the harmful ones.

She has held officious officials’ and politicians’ feet to the fire (pardon the expression) in the early hours when they had nothing to report and tried to fill their air time with bureaucratic gobbledygook or empty promises and brought them back to what her listeners wanted — evacuation areas, fire lines, road conditions. The need-to-know stuff.


As a big-league sidekick, Pat has had Alex Stone, the ABC-TV newsman who grew up in Santa Rosa, working for KSRO as a teenager when his mother had to drive him to cover fires, floods and automobile accidents.

Alex, the rare national reporter who knows the territory, was driving down empty Oakmont Drive last Sunday, pretty much alone. Oakmont was on mandatory evacuation. But PG&E had done its work. Not only were the lights back on but so was cable.

As he passed, Alex saw the glow of a big-screen TV playing through the picture window to an empty house in a deserted neighborhood.

He could probably have stopped and watched Jeopardy. Or seen himself on the ABC Evening News.


We are still in the midst of it — in a place where random thoughts form sentences.

People seem a lot kinder, a lot more caring than they were —WE were — in September.

There’s no place for cynicism in this charred corner of the world. We have learned, in one very long week, how much we need each other and how much better things will go if we lean toward the positive.

As several people have pointed out, we have come to a crossroads, a before-and-after place.

For the rest of our lives many of us will see the past through the smoke and haze of this dreadful October. Events will have occurred “before the fire” or “after the fire,” and everyone who is here today will understand what that means in terms of what this city becomes and what it used to be.