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‘Last October’ documentary captures experience of Santa Rosa city workers in 2017 fires

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Five days after Kelley Magnuson lost her home in the October 2017 wildfires, she went back to work.

Magnuson, Santa Rosa’s deputy director of recreation, had fled to Cloverdale from the Tubbs fire, which destroyed the Mark West Estates home where she’d lived with her son and his fiancée. Her phone had been buzzing the night of the fire, but she wasn’t able to join other city officials to coordinate the local response to the fire after flames jumped Highway 101.

Many of Magnuson’s staffers were busy at the Finley Community Center working to shelter hundreds of people who had lost their homes. While she worked to replace her car, clothes and home, she joined them.

“My co-workers had lost their homes, too, and they were all working,” she said. “So it just felt like the right thing to do was to get in and help.”

Magnuson is one of more than two dozen current and former Santa Rosa workers and City Council members featured in a city-produced documentary about the local response to the fires that is set for three public showings this month. The 52-minute film is a way for the city to tell the stories of employees across city government — from police and firefighters to public works and parks staff — while also acknowledging workers who exhibited selflessness during the catastrophe.

“It’s so important that we preserve a historical record of our city’s experience,” City Manager Sean McGlynn said in a statement. “This project was a chance to give our employees an opportunity to share their own experiences, and out of it, have a way to share those stories with our community and with other communities and agencies so that we may learn from each other.”

The fires in Sonoma County killed 24 people and destroyed over 5,000 homes, 62 of which belonged to city employees. About 60% of the homes in the city are either rebuilt or in the process of rebuilding. That group includes Magnuson, who plans to move in to her rebuilt home next weekend.

Working in the temporary shelter at the Finley center while kicking off her own rebuilding efforts helped put things in perspective, she said.

Fellow fire survivors “were living on cots and trying to figure out their lives,” Magnuson recalled.

The documentary, which The Press Democrat viewed Friday, produced by the city and directed by Jamie Tuell of Santa Rosa-based Culture Pop Films, which has worked with the city previously to produce public service announcements and website imagery. The city paid Culture Pop $36,000 for its work.

The film, titled “Last October,” largely features interview footage with city employees, interspersed with other footage and photographs from the first night of the firestorm and its aftermath. Most of the interviews were conducted in early to mid-2018, though some footage comes from mid-October 2017, such as a shot of then-Santa Rosa Police Captain Ray Navarro, now the city’s police chief, marveling at the ruins of the Kmart on Cleveland Avenue.

The city has planned three screenings of the movie in the next few weeks:

- 6:30 p.m. on Sept. 5 at the Finley center, 2060 W. College Ave.

- 6 p.m. on Sept. 12 at Third Street Cinemas, 620 Third St.

- 6 p.m. on Sept. 17 at Santa Rosa City Hall, 100 Santa Rosa Ave.

The first and three screenings will be hosted in conjunction with art exhibits that reflect on the fires. Both exhibits will be on display through early October.

After the third screening, the city plans to make the film available online at srcity.org/LastOctober.

Magnuson said she thought the film was “a pretty good overview of what city employees went through” in the struggle to balance their professional responsibility to their community and their own personal post-fire experiences.

“We just had to deal with it the best we could,” she said. “It was so extreme. I think the message is that the city dealt with it pretty well.”

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports.

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