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.
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