Sonoma County Supervisor Susan Gorin forges ahead after loss of home in Nuns fire

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Read all of the PD’s fire anniversary coverage here

Susan Gorin strode through an empty patch of dirt atop a hill in Santa Rosa’s Oakmont retirement community on a recent morning.

Behind her, a group of blackened trees bore obvious signs of where the Nuns fire burned through Trione-Annadel State Park nearly one year earlier. Ahead of Gorin, a two-term Sonoma County supervisor, the Valley of the Moon unfolded in the distance, a stunning view she fell in love with when she moved to the site more than five years ago.

But Gorin doesn’t live there anymore. Her home is gone, one of only two in the city destroyed by the Nuns fire.

“Welcome to my house,” she said, gesturing to the dirt around her with a chuckle.

There was the front door, said the former Santa Rosa mayor. There was the garage, the kitchen, the living room, the dining room and master bedroom.

Years ago, the first morning Gorin woke up at the house, she looked out her bedroom window and saw turkey vultures soaring overhead.

“I went, ‘I’m in heaven,’ ” she recalled.

Gorin, 66, and her husband, Joe, left their home for the last time when they traveled to Colorado to await the birth of their grandchild shortly before the North Bay wildfires ignited Oct. 8. Two days later, flames destroyed their Oakmont home.

The loss, combined with Gorin’s duties as an elected official, put her in the unusual position of forging ahead as a fire survivor while simultaneously governing the county’s recovery from an unprecedented disaster. She has tried to keep the two roles separate. But her personal experience has, over the past year, informed and colored her public role representing the county’s 1st District, including the fire-scarred communities of Glen Ellen and Kenwood and the greater Sonoma Valley.

“I’ve tried to put my personal loss on the back burner and really not talk about my experience a lot,” Gorin said. “I have tried really hard to put my emotions on the back burner (too) so that I’m not really dwelling on what I’ve lost, how difficult it is to rebuild. But I use that experience.”

Shared understanding

Within Sonoma County government’s workforce of 4,000 people, about 140 lost their homes in the wildfires. Gorin is the only member of the Board of Supervisors on that list and one of only a trio of elected officials countywide to lose homes in the fires.

Her district director, Pat Gilardi, lost a home in Coffey Park that she and her husband were renting to another family.

“Susan and I compare a lot of notes,” Gilardi said. “Everything’s the same, except that I don’t have the trauma of losing a lifetime of history, and that’s huge.”

Gorin and Gilardi said their shared understanding of what it means to have lost a home last year has been useful when helping county officials communicate with fire survivors.

Michael Gossman, the deputy county administrator who leads the Office of Recovery and Resiliency, agreed.

“I’m not experiencing the whole insurance situation, so to understand the path that they have to go through to get insurance money and to get that taken care of is really helpful for how we can develop our programs,” Gossman said.

Read all of the PD’s fire anniversary coverage here

At times, Gorin said she has used her own experience to “put a check on people’s expectations,” including predictions of the time needed to rebuild the 5,300 homes lost in the county last October.

Board of Supervisors Chairman James Gore said Gorin has often been the body’s voice of “ground truth,” the person best able to channel the reality of what fire survivors are going through. He credited her with helping maintain an urgent focus on improving emergency response measures after widespread criticism from residents about the county’s failure to send more widespread warnings last year.

At a Board of Supervisors meeting in February, Gorin wept as she recalled “horror stories” of friends and constituents in her district who received no warning before they had to flee their homes.

“All my life I placed my faith in the professionals — you guys rock,” she said after a presentation from the top county emergency official. “And to tell you that I am horribly disappointed is an understatement.”

Gore said he got goosebumps reflecting on those poignant comments.

“It made it all real,” he said in an interview. “That’s the problem with politics, is that people can catch themselves and start talking about programs and policies instead of people.”

Helped by community

Gorin was not in town when the firestorm broke out, but she was back by the time her house burned down.

She caught the first flight she could make to the Bay Area from Colorado as soon as she heard about the fires. When she returned to Santa Rosa, she stayed with friends in the city’s Junior College neighborhood because her home was in an evacuation zone.

At a town hall meeting in Santa Rosa that Tuesday, Oct. 10, state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, took special notice of Gorin as one of a number of Oakmont residents visibly distraught over fears their community would burn down.

McGuire drove out to Oakmont after the meeting, along with CHP Capt. Michael Palacio, Santa Rosa Councilman Chris Rogers and Jason Liles, McGuire’s longtime chief of staff. Most of the community appeared safe.

But minutes after they entered Gorin’s house with her permission and began rescuing belongings, the backyard was ablaze. The flames grew as tall as the house.

“We were running from room to room, trying to put as much as we could into pillowcases and sheets and comforters, and then we’d throw them over our back like Santa, essentially,” McGuire recalled in an interview.

The men grabbed what they could before rushing out. McGuire looked over his shoulder and saw the entire deck on fire, with flames encroaching on the roof.

“It was a surreal experience,” he said.

For Gorin, it was a profound shock amid a deeply unsettling pair of days. When she first returned to town, she didn’t think her property was in danger.

“Had I known my house was at risk, I would have gotten somebody to burst through the barricade and retrieve a lot of things from my home, probably,” she said.

Hearing harrowing tales

Though she was not among the tens of thousands of people who awoke that first night to the sight of flames and smell of smoke, Gorin has absorbed the tales of others’ harrowing escapes as the fires advanced.

She can still recount them in heartbreaking detail:

A friend who couldn’t get her Fountaingrove garage door open and fled barefoot down the street while her nightgown was on fire.

A Sonoma Valley family who took refuge in a meadow until they drove through a winery property after realizing no one was coming to save them.

Another woman who sang songs to her children as they fled in their car, ensuring they did not look behind them to see their home in flames.

“Those are the stories I react to,” Gorin said, tearing up.

She has had to find time to grapple with her own experience, too, including the loss of a home with a lifetime of belongings, among them a suitcase of childhood photos she never had time to scan.

“Put everything on backup,” Gorin said. “Including photos of everything that you own.”

She and Joe are renting a home in Oakmont purchased by his mother after the fires. They are working on their third round of designs for a new home on their old lot. Time will tell if it pencils out, she said.

Gorin may be a little “battle weary,” Gilardi said, but the supervisor remains intent on moving forward and helping others do the same.

“Susan is doing as well as could be expected, given the enormity of what she’s facing,” Gilardi said. “It’s a huge task.”

Gorin was first elected to the Santa Rosa school board in 1996. She later served six years on the Santa Rosa City Council, including a two-year term as mayor, before winning election to the Board of Supervisors in 2012.

Her dedication to her job has been steadfast, according to Gore, the board chairman. She has missed just one supervisors’ meeting this year for personal reasons — during the week that she took to inventory the belongings she and Joe lost in the fires.

Even then, Gore said, she took time to email him her comments as the board took up the draft of the county’s fire recovery plan.

“Susan has been the embodiment of resilience,” Gore said. “I can’t tell you how impressed I have been, with everything she’s going through.”

Last week, before the tour of her Oakmont property, Gorin had just returned from that break needed to tackle the inventory of her fire losses.

It’s a task that all fire survivors have shared in common to maximize insurance settlements. Gorin was reluctant to take it on, and she called the dayslong process as an “awful” experience.

“Every single thing, every line, you had to say how you got it, whether it was inherited or purchased, when, and the replacement cost,” Gorin said, standing on her barren Oakmont lot, her voice wavering. “How do you put a replacement cost?”

Gorin then pivoted and walked briskly off toward what used to be her backyard, another sanctuary erased by the fires.

Maybe half the inventory was done. It was all she could bear to do for now.

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