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Need help?

The California HOPE program provides outreach and counseling to Sonoma County residents affected by the wildfires. The federally funded program provides crisis counseling, resource navigation and disaster recovery education. Counselors can be reached at:

  • Santa Rosa, 707-608-8805
  • Northern Sonoma County, 707-608-8807
  • Sonoma Valley, 707-608-8806
  • Southern Sonoma County, 707-608-8806
  • West Sonoma County, 707-608-8807
  • Adults age 50 or older, 707-608-8804

Other mental health and wellness resources for fire survivors can be found at the Sonoma County Recovers website.

Read all of the PD's fire anniversary coverage here

George Powell’s dogs have been a lifeline during the worst year of his life.

They’re working dogs — border collies — and he has turned to them and the herding bred into their bloodline as a salve for the terrible loss inflicted on him in last October’s wildfires.

“Working out there in the middle of the field with just your dog and a few head of sheep is really therapeutic,” Powell said. “You have a partnership going on. It’s not just the dog doing something, it’s not just you doing something. You have to work together. It takes me out of my pain.”

George and Lynne Anderson Powell lived on Blue Ridge Trail, at the western edge of the canyon leading up the Mark West Creek corridor. When the Tubbs fire came roaring down the drainage from Napa County last October, Lynne, an avid hiker and accomplished musician, left shortly before her husband that night, driving away from their home with one of their border collies, Jemma.

In the thick smoke, she missed a sharp turn not far from home and plummeted down an embankment. George, who was just a few minutes behind her after collecting the other dogs, nearly missed the same turn. Days later, a detective found Lynne’s body by the burned-out vehicle.

“My wife was so phenomenal, was so special, was such a huge part of my life for 33 years. There’s this monstrous hole inside of me,” said Powell. “I know I’m not alone. I know there are other people who are going through this, who are feeling this.”

Nearly a year after the fires, the grief for those who lost loved ones is still raw and unsettling.

Where thousands across the North Bay lost homes — more than 5,300 were destroyed in Sonoma County alone — the deepest blow came to family and friends of the 40 people who died across Wine Country in the fires.

As the first anniversary of the fires approaches, some say they plan to mark the anniversary by gathering with loved ones, leaving flowers on a grave or attending memorial events. For others, the year mark is nothing more than another reminder of the deep sorrow they have endured.

“I miss her every day,” said Jessica Tunis, whose mother, Linda, died at her home in the Journey’s End mobile home park as the Tubbs fire pushed into Santa Rosa. “That part doesn’t get better. It gets worse sometimes, because I realize she’s not coming back.”

For some survivors, meeting with others who are coping with a similar loss can help with the emotional burden that seems to mount at such times, said Wendy Wheelwright, project manager with California Helping Outreach Possibilities and Empowerment (HOPE), a program launched this spring to address mental health issues related to the wildfires.

“Narrative is extremely powerful as a healing tool,” Wheelwright said. “That simple act of connecting with someone, asking about their experience and caring about the answers, it feels good.”

‘There’s no rebuilding’

Jessica and Linda Tunis had always been tight. But when Linda moved from West Palm Beach, Florida, to Santa Rosa in early 2017, they became even closer.

“We went to Wednesday Night Markets, the Railroad Square Music Festival, we’d go to concerts on Thursday nights,” said Tunis. The pair were social butterflies. Together, they last attended the Sonoma County Harvest Fair on Oct. 8.

Need help?

The California HOPE program provides outreach and counseling to Sonoma County residents affected by the wildfires. The federally funded program provides crisis counseling, resource navigation and disaster recovery education. Counselors can be reached at:

  • Santa Rosa, 707-608-8805
  • Northern Sonoma County, 707-608-8807
  • Sonoma Valley, 707-608-8806
  • Southern Sonoma County, 707-608-8806
  • West Sonoma County, 707-608-8807
  • Adults age 50 or older, 707-608-8804

Other mental health and wellness resources for fire survivors can be found at the Sonoma County Recovers website.

Read all of the PD's fire anniversary coverage here

Linda Tunis died in the Tubbs fire early the next day.

Jessica hosted a celebration of life on March 31 — her mother’s birthday. The gathering was Hawaii themed, with about 30 friends wearing leis, eating hamburgers and playing bingo in Linda’s honor.

“It was very upbeat,” Tunis said. “I couldn’t do another memorial. I had to do a celebration.”

Feeling alone in her grief after the fires, Tunis said she reached out to other people who had lost loved ones. The response was mixed. As neighborhood groups formed in Coffey Park and Fountaingrove, Tunis said she found herself wishing for a similar support group.

“I don’t have a Coffey Strong group helping me rebuild my house,” Tunis said. “There isn’t that kind of connection between people who lost someone.”

“There’s no rebuilding,” Tunis added, speaking about her mother’s death. “There’s no replacing her. This whole thing, ‘Rise from the Ashes.’ Those metaphors are hard for me.”

Wheelwright of California HOPE said she is not surprised to hear that people whose loved ones died in the fires may feel at a loss, especially without the support of others. Some people experiencing grief might also feel exposed or vulnerable, she said.

“Some people are going to want to go connect with the community and cry together and get it out, and it’s healthy for them to do that,” she said. “Other people are going to want to pick and choose more private ways to do that. Because that’s their experience and emotional process.”

Family bonds

In Redwood Valley, the families of Janet Costanzo and Steve Stelter will gather on the anniversary at the property that was the couple’s beloved retreat in retirement. Costanzo, 71, and Stelter, 56, died after flames consumed the house on Oct. 9. The couple had been preparing to evacuate.

Holly Hollinger, Costanzo’s niece, regularly drives more than an hour from her Healdsburg home to her aunt’s property off West Road. She works to clear burned trees and “remove death,” she said. On the anniversary, both sides of the family will come to help with the cleanup process, share memories about the couple and plant new trees.

“We have acres and acres of black, dead trees,” Hollinger said. “We’ll walk around and plant some trees. We’ll have food, and music, and sitting around talking about the people we love.”

Reeah Winkle, Steve Stelter’s daughter, plans to attend the memorial gathering. She took her 4-year-old son, Mac, and 2-year-old daughter, Sunny, to Ocean Beach in San Francisco for the first time on her dad’s birthday.

“You have to make sure people you love know how you feel about them,” Winkle said. “Make time for people you care about.”

Memories and signs

When Monte Kirven, 81, was last seen by his family in Point Reyes, he was holding a baby peregrine falcon. It was fitting for a wildlife biologist who had devoted his career to studying the swift birds of prey, helping bring the species back from the edge of extinction.

Monte Kirven died in his longtime home when the Tubbs fire burned through his rural Santa Rosa neighborhood off Mark West Springs Road.

His children — sons Brian and Kenneth Kirven and daughter Kathleen Groppe — have hatched plans to install a plaque “probably with a reference to falcons” at their dad’s old property on Linda Lane.

Brian Kirven said he and his brother were talking on the back patio of Kenneth’s home in San Diego earlier this year when Brian asked Kenneth how he was doing with their father’s passing. It was a long, silent moment, and he had begun to rise from the chair. That’s when a peregrine falcon flew low overhead and nearly “took my head off.”

“Maybe it’s stretching it, but it felt pretty mystical to me,” Kirven said. “Felt like a connection somehow. That was his totem bird. My brother asked me, ‘Why didn’t he stick around?’ I said that wasn’t his style.”

That experience and some dreams have helped illuminate sides of his dad that the siblings “didn’t always have an easy time seeing” while he was alive, Brian Kirven said. Still, the suddenness of Monte’s death blindsided him.

“Lots of moments wanting to talk to him about certain things,” his son said. “Kind of ceomes up randomly. I want to ask him about a certain bird. Want to tell him about a bird. Comes up in the moment, then you realize he’s not there to ask.”

George and Lynne Powell had a poetic phrase they liked to use when facing trouble or a difficult transition in life. They would seek out the “angle of repose,” the steepest slant where a loose object would come to rest.

“Just picture a boulder rolling down a hill, and eventually it comes to a place and stops,” Powell said. “A lot of us are still rolling. We still haven’t reached that angle of repose.”

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