Gaye LeBaron: Renewing scarred Santa Rosa after fire, bits and pieces at a time

Jack O'Callaghan wipes sweat off his forehead while he sifts through the ashes of his home, in Glen Ellen, California on Tuesday, October 10, 2017. O'Callaghan's home was destroyed as the Nuns fire swept through the area early Monday morning. The Nuns Fire has destroyed approximately 54 thousand acres- 34,398 in Sonoma County and 20,025 in Napa County. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)


The wildfire that swept down from the hills to eat away Santa Rosa’s northern edges last month was, among other more dreadful things, a great leveler. You may have noted, as did I, that Coffey Park residences lost had roughly half the assessed valuations of Fountaingrove — $300 to $600 per square foot.

But there is no doubling or halving the emotional and physical impact of losing your house, whatever it cost.

It comes down to other things — little ones, like your grandfather’s special tools in the case he made for them, the bag of molten quarters where the top dresser drawer used to be, your mother’s wedding ring. Those lists are long and varied and stained with tears.

Even those who escaped with their lives by the narrowest of margins have sifted the ashes in search of just one little bit of memory.

JUDY SAKAKI IS ONE of those. The survival story is Judy’s to tell. I will just say that the barefoot run up a burning street that she and her husband, Patrick McCallum, survived seems as close to a miracle as any of the stories I’ve heard.

Still, what makes the Sonoma State University president smile is telling of the discovery, in the ashes of her Fountaingrove home, of two tiny “heirlooms” — her mother’s tea cup, scorched but intact, and her grandfather’s sake cup.

They may well be added to the items in the Schulz Library’s second-floor gallery at SSU where an exhibit called Pathway to the Presidency includes other family treasures that tell Dr. Sakaki’s story, titled, “I Am Because….”

Several of the items relate to the World War II enforced “relocation” of her family from the Bay Area to an internment camp in the Utah desert. Not joyous history for certain — but ever so important.

What has become clear is that the exhibit has proven a blessing. It had been taken down and was packed up but not yet returned to the Sakaki/McCallum household.

Everything has been unpacked and returned to the exhibit space, where it will stay until mid-December.

Had these pieces of history not been in the gallery, they would be … well, I think you get the picture.

The president, who is currently enjoying dormitory life on campus, admits that her first walk-through of the restored exhibit was “very emotional.”

WE TALK ABOUT the history that has been lost. And there is some discussion beginning around how to “keep” the Fountaingrove Round Barn in a creative way. Elsewhere our history is being revealed in surviving bits and pieces.

One piece, considerably bigger than a bit, comes from the property of Kent Ustiantseff and Marian Larsen, who lost their home of nearly 40 years on Mark West Springs Road, near the former Ursuline campus.

Safe in the rubble and ash is the gravestone of Mark West himself.

It tells us William Marcus West was born in England and died January 1, 1850.

Early historians tell us more about him — that he was a ships’ carpenter who arrived in Mexican California in 1841, married a Californio woman named Guadalupe Vasquez and was granted, through the good offices of Mariano Vallejo in Sonoma, 6,663 acres known as Rancho San Miguel, bordering Rancho Cabeza de Santa Rosa on the north.

He left his carpenter’s mark on many of the area’s first adobes, building the wood infrastructures. He died at age 35, leaving his name on the creek, the road and the springs we know well.

His widow converted their own adobe home to a traveler’s stop generally regarded as the first inn in the area. The site of his burial was recorded as the “eastern-southern” corner of his rancho.

Now you know everything I know. Eric Stanley, history curator of the Museums of Sonoma County, was scheduled to meet with the property owners last week. The aim: to find a safe place for the preservation of what could be one of the county’s earliest existing grave markers.

THE DAMAGE DONE here in the past month is both physical and emotional. And I cannot imagine that there is anyone among us who has not been affected in some way.

I am hearing that people who still have their houses and their lives intact are feeling like they need to apologize — survivors’ guilt, I think it’s called. I’d rather think of it as a common bond; because, to a lesser or greater degree, all of us in and around Santa Rosa have lost our “home.”

For thousands of people that’s a physical description — house, everything in it and around it. For others, more fortunate, it is familiar and favorite places to go, things we could count on to be there — the stuff that makes a town a home.

Santa Rosa isn’t going to be the same place again. Not ever. This is not to suggest that nothing but gloom and doom lies ahead. Not at all. But it will be a different town in many ways.

With this thought in mind, you might be interested in what I am hearing from friends who are going through the long and tedious process of re-establishing not only their dwellings but also their very identities and everyday needs.

Most of these people I know also feel lucky — for having escaped with their lives. And they are telling stories that need to be heard about how kind and thoughtful the people at FEMA, the post office and the DMV, who are themselves under stress, have been through it all.

One woman, who admits to having said naught but negative in her past life about her cable company, says she’s ready to testify on its behalf, since the man she dealt with not only drew forgiving lines through last month’s account but shed a tear with her as he handed over a box of Kleenex.

Reports on the FEMA people, mostly veteran hurricane chasers from Florida, Louisiana and Texas, are that they are complimentary about how surprisingly “nice” the people here have been.

Hold tight to that thought. If we keep on keeping our cool, being “nice” to government officials, and nice — add caring, maybe loving — to one another, patient in lines and in traffic, this “new” Santa Rosa of ours will be the great place to live that it was before the winds blew fire into our lives.