At ‘Thicker than Smoke’ event, fire survivors share their stories
Sonoma State University President Dr. Judy Sakaki woke up in the early morning of Oct. 9 to the fire alarm beeping in her Fountaingrove home. She saw massive flames, woke up her husband, Patrick McCallum, and the two ran out of the house and into the smoke outside.
From Hanover Place to Crown Hill to Parker Hill, they kept running. Sakaki was barefoot, and they often had to stop to catch their breath or shield themselves from the embers. But they kept going.
In the middle of the thick, black smoke, she saw two circles of light and thought she was hallucinating. It turned out to be the headlights of a car approaching with two Santa Rosa firefighters.
“I don’t remember screaming,” Sakaki said. But the firefighters remembered.
Sakaki was one of 13 community members who shared their stories of surviving the October wildfires in front of hundreds of people gathered Friday night at the Green Music Center. The event was the first of two “Thicker Than Smoke” events to raise funds for first responders who lost their homes it served to help with the community’s healing process 10 months after the most destructive wildfires in California history.
Six counselors from California Helping Outreach Possibilities Empowerment were available in the lobby for free counseling services to audience members as they relived the night of the firestorms.
“I think this event is a great way for people to connect, which is part of the healing process,” said Shannon Ryan, HOPE counselor and team lead. “Everyone is in different places in their healing.”
In Sonoma County, 5,319 homes were destroyed by the October wildfires, and 24 people died. One of those homes was of Santa Rosa firefighter Tony Niel, who shared his fire story Friday night. His was the car that saved Sakaki and her husband.
Before he found them, he had fled his Mark West Estates home with his wife and two sons, then age 12 and 10. He sent them to stay with relatives so he could work, but it was hard on the family.
“Dad, we don’t want you to go. We don’t want you to die,” his boys told him.
He reassured them through tears that he wouldn’t die, then went to find a rig at Fire Station 2 on Stony Point Road.
“I have a strong faith, and I feel like God put me there that night so I could meet up with Patrick and Judy,” Niel said.
Sakaki said she had difficulty sleeping after that night and saw flames every time she closed her eyes. In her dreams, she was always running, but not quite fast enough.
“This has been the most traumatic and difficult personal experience of my life,” Sakaki said. “But the devastation also did something else. It revealed to us the special power, the uniqueness, the heart of our North Bay community. Our resilience, our grit, our care for one another. These are elements that lift us up. They help us to rebuild — not just the physical rebuilding — but also, the emotional rebuilding.”
Gaye LeBaron, local historian and longtime Press Democrat columnist, spoke about how she witnessed the October wildlifes and the 1964 Hanley fire, which was eerily similar.