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Volunteers turn grief into good deeds following October wildfires

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In the wake of the October wildfires, people across Sonoma County were left heartbroken by the devastating loss of homes, possessions and lives.

But some have taken their grief and forged it into a force for good. Psychologists have found that getting involved rather than staying isolated and actively engaging in the struggle instead of feeling powerless helps people not only survive, but thrive, following a stressful situation.

Many of these Good Samaritans have found ways to make a difference by helping others in ways that played to their strengths.

One delivered food to the hungry. Another created a website to help people support fire survivors and the local businesses contributing to relief efforts. A third has tried to raise awareness of changes that could prevent a firestorm from ever taking such a devastating toll again.

The community has become stronger because of them. Here are a few of their stories.

‘The itch to do more’

Sonoma State University graduate Vanessa Johns, 31, lives with her fiancé on San Miguel Avenue in Santa Rosa, on the western end of the street where three-quarters of the homes are still standing.

On the night the fire jumped the freeway, the couple woke up at 2:15 a.m. and smelled smoke. They opened the blinds and saw a smoky, orange glow to the east and chaos to the west, a line of evacuating cars. It took them 10 minutes to get dressed, corral their pets and join the mass exodus.

Johns called her employer, Sonic, to see if they could go to its west Santa Rosa offices with their pets. They stayed one day, then she spent the rest of the week turning the facility into a makeshift shelter for employees, making runs to Costco and buying air mattresses.

At Sonic, Johns worked in human resources and helped develop a program encouraging employees to give back to the community through acts of service.

“Between that and taking care of people during the fires, it really gave me the itch to do more,” she said. “In November, I started volunteering at the (Redwood Empire) Food Bank with fire relief distribution.”

Every year, with the help of hundreds of volunteers, the food bank serves 82,000 people in five counties: Sonoma, Mendocino, Lake, Humboldt and Del Norte. In Sonoma County, she said, 1 in 6 suffer from hunger.

“I am personally drawn to working at a distribution site,” she said. “You’re handing out food and seeing the positive impact you’re having on people’s lives.”

In March, Johns applied for a job at the food bank as community engagement coordinator and got it, using her marketing skills to speak to the community and conduct food and fund drives.

“I share our mission and what work we’re doing,” she said. “Our mission is to end hunger in our community, and we all work really hard to do that.”

Every Wednesday since the fire, Johns hands out bags of food at the Redwood Empire Food Bank, which started a new program to feed fire survivors who have lost a home, a job or both. The food allows displaced people to focus on more pressing needs, like finding a job and a place to live.

“There are still people affected by the October fires,” she said. “The last thing we want is for people going through such difficult life situations to have to worry about what to put in their stomachs.”

Sonoma Proud

A day after the fire, web designer Giovani Camara, 22, of Petaluma wanted to help but could not find a place that still needed volunteers. Then he read a post on the Firestorm Update Facebook page urging people to support businesses giving back to relief efforts. “These are the businesses that in these hard times ... we should be supporting,” the post stated.

Camara immediately went to work, poring over spreadsheets and finding photos to translate that information into a reader-friendly format for the web.

“If you’re gifted at something, that’s the best way to give,” said Camara, who works for Kreck Design in Santa Rosa. “You don’t need much money to make an impact. You just need time.”

In search of a URL, Camara reached out to the person who was using #sonomaproud and pitched his idea. He not only got permission to use the domain name in his website, sonomaproud.com, but was offered free hosting for a year. Then he built it from the ground up.

“Initially, it was an all-nighter,” he said. “I worked for two straight days, and then it evolved.”

To help the businesses, he added links to Google, Facebook and Yelp, so that people could leave reviews. The site listed more than 50 businesses ranging from Epicenter, a sports complex in west Santa Rosa that served as a donation and distribution center, to VCA Animal Hospitals, which gave free care to animals injured in the fires.

Next, he aggregated local GoFundMe campaigns created to help people who had been affected by the fires, with links to their stories.

“I put up the first 100, then people put up their own,” he said. “This is a good way for people to see those who were affected.”

Next, he added a list of businesses whose owners or employees had lost their homes, so that people could support them as well. The site listed 150 business, ranging from Ausiello’s Bar in Santa Rosa to the Roxy, Summerfield and Airport movie theaters in Santa Rosa and Windsor.

Finally, he put together a list of fire departments and other public safety agencies that sent help to Sonoma County during the wildfires, creating a resource for residents who wanted to express their gratitude.

Now a year out, sonomaproud.com serves as a remembrance of the disaster, and Camara hopes to add a feature that would allow people to share their stories.

“People need to be heard, and they need to remember,” he said. “Sharing with others makes the loss bearable.”

A sense of urgency

On the night of the fire, Will Abrams and his family slept soundly in the Hidden Hills neighborhood on Riebli Road, insulated from any warning signs by the surrounding hills. When the smoke alarm woke them up at 1:30 a.m., the house was already on fire. He figures his family was the last to leave the 50-home neighborhood, where only two homes survived.

“We were running for our lives,” said Abrams, a consultant in organizational management. “We had no time ... there were burning logs in the driveway ... the kids were screaming, ‘We’re going to die,’ and I’m reassuring them, thinking, ‘We’re all going to die.’ ”

The 47-year-old has spent the past year tirelessly advocating for ways to cut a path through the bureaucracy and implement post-fire reforms, such as creating fire breaks, fire-safe rebuilding codes for homes and landscapes and other risk mitigation practices.

In addition to organizing a group to support the rebuild effort in the Riebli-Wallace neighborhood, he attends county supervisor meetings as well as the special meetings individual supervisors hold on a regular basis to address post-fire issues. He also attended the hearing in Sacramento this summer convened by Senate and Assembly leaders to consider new fire protection laws.

Abrams, who has worked in nonprofits, high-tech businesses and government under former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, is trying to create a collaboration between the public sector, nonprofits and private citizens who share a sense of urgency and want to streamline changes.

“We need a communication expert and other experts in other areas,” he said. “Let’s come up with a team to advise on an early alert system, fire breaks and PG&E.”

Although Abrams understands why people want to rebuild quickly, he is concerned that down the road, the insurance companies may send rates through the roof — or refuse to provide insurance at all. Before he rebuilds his home, for example, Abrams wants an early alert system that does not rely on cellphones or neighbors knocking on your door.

“Right now the alert system is the wild, wild west ... and I am not going to put my family at risk,” he said. “Any government, even the best, cannot solve this.”

Instead, he suggests asking high-tech companies to come up with ways to alert the urban and rural populations within 10 minutes, perhaps with innovative sirens that are pinpointed to geographic areas.

“You would have 100 different proposals,” he said. “If they need more money ... you could crowdfund in a heartbeat.”

Some of his other suggestions include improving Nixle by fine-tuning its communications, asking PG&E for a cost analysis of placing power lines underground — including the 30-year cost savings of not having to cut back vegetation — and implementing incentives to make homes and landscaping fire-resistant.

“If everybody doesn’t take the proactive approach, the fire will spread and the insurance companies will pull out,” he said. “It can’t be wait and see.”

Before the fire, Abrams’ 10-year-old son, Leo, read a book called “I Survived the Great Chicago Fire, 1871.” The urban inferno killed about 300 people and left 100,000 homeless. Ironically, the blaze started at 9 p.m. on Oct. 8.

After the October wildfires, Abrams did some research and learned that in 1874, a second Chicago fire killed 20 people and destroyed 812 structures. It was only after that second inferno, when the insurance industry threatened to cancel coverage, that the city made reforms, such as mandating that every home be built of brick.

“The city snapped to,” he said. “We are capable of doing that.”

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.

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