In the wake of the most destructive fires in California history, more than 200 people joined together in Santa Rosa’s newly reunified Old Courthouse Square Friday night to talk, sing and heal.
With glow sticks, flashlights and flameless candles, they listened to speeches about community from Santa Rosa residents like Kendra Bullard. They danced to “I Will Survive,” a disco song by Gloria Gaynor that DJ Randy Yap said he’d had requests for all night. Miss Sonoma County Kristina Schmuhl and Miss Sonoma County’s Outstanding Teen Emily Wong in their light-up crowns, moved to the music on the square’s lawn.
And they cheered as one of Sonoma County’s newest celebrities, deaf translator Sandy McLennon, signed from atop the stage with her characteristic style, ensuring Sonoma County’s deaf community could participate, too. She became a familiar fixture for thousands as she translated televised press conferences during the worst of the disaster.
“While I would love to change what happened. There is a certain aspect I hope lives on well after we leave tonight,” Bullard said. “... While the loss is undeniable, what has been found is so valuable: community. ... We have embraced the simple, yet powerful, ‘Sonoma strong.’ ”
In all, 23 people were killed as fires roared across Sonoma County last week, including one woman who died in a fire-related crash. More than 6,800 structures were destroyed, and officials estimate more than $3 billion in losses to the county.
The community event Friday night was organized by Santa Rosa resident Mandi Marrs, a stay-at-home mom whose home was spared in the blaze. Not an official city-sponsored event, she got help from organizers of the seasonal Wednesday Night Market to get the permits she needed.
“People need to gather and discuss their experiences and talk about just the stress that they’ve been feeling, and I felt like we needed to all get together and have a big group hug,” Marrs said. “I know the terror isn’t completely over, but I feel like we all need to see each other’s faces and know that we’re all in this together.”
Among the crowd were Katie Pedgrift, 41, and her spouse, Vanessa DeSousa, 38. The two were on a trip to Amsterdam with Pedgrift’s parents when the fires broke out in Sonoma County. While they were gone, their Bennett Valley Heights home was evacuated. Luckily, it was spared in the blaze.
“It was pretty alarming,” Pedgrift said.
“I didn’t know if my friends were OK,” DeSousa said. “We have pets and we had to have someone try to get them out of our home, which they were able to, and brought them to the Rohnert Park shelter. It was scary, not knowing about friends and other family members.”
They came to the rally because they wanted to feel the sense of community that was pervasive in the square Friday night, and to grieve alongside their neighbors for all Sonoma County has lost.
“And be hopeful, too,” DeSousa said. “That we can rebuild and be stronger together.”
You can reach Staff Writer Christi Warren at 707-521-5205 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @SeaWarren.