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Thousands of Windsor residents gather to thank Kincade fire heroes who saved the town

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Staring at the thousands of cheering Windsor residents who showed up at the Town Green on Sunday morning to lavish praise upon the first responders who battled the explosive Kincade fire, Sonoma County Fire District Deputy Chief Matt Gustafson paused to compose himself.

“This turnout to me is just overwhelming. It’s just hard to describe,” said Gustafson, a veteran of the department that covers Windsor and Rincon Valley. “The fire department here loves this town. Most of the firefighters live here just like you. It was really important to them to take a stand.”

With the smell of wildfire smoke still hanging in the air, the town’s weekly Sunday farmers market, which also was hosting its annual Pumpkin Jamboree rescheduled from the previous weekend due to the blaze, quickly shifted into a salute to heroes for saving the town from being consumed by flames.

The price of admission appeared to be a homemade sign celebrating the region’s firefighters and law enforcement who prevented the worst of what was expected — a repeat of the October 2017 firestorm that devastated Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park and Fountaingrove neighborhoods. But this time the town of about 27,000 people a few miles north of Santa Rosa was at the epicenter.

“When I was first briefed that the fire was going to come down and basically decimate Windsor, I was fully expecting that we were going to be another Coffey Park,” Windsor Councilwoman Esther Lemus acknowledged to the estimated 4,500-plus person crowd. “We were bracing ourselves for the worst. We were certain we were going to lose our town.”

But through the efforts and preparation of firefighters from across California, including many of the local fire departments and hundreds from neighboring states, the potential crisis was averted. And on Sunday, residents had the chance to offer their gratitude as everyone returned to a town that because of firefighters’ actions not only survived, but did not suffer a single home destroyed within town limits.

Handshakes and embraces between neighbors seeing each other for the first time since last Saturday’s widespread evacuation were in many cases tear-filled. Those in the crowd waved their signs decorated with hearts, hashtags, including #WindsorTogether and some with only the word “Gracias!,” as people shouted the English version in unison at the guests of honor on stage.

Longtime Councilman Sam Salmon called the event, where residents also posed for a town photo to send to fire agencies involved in Windsor’s defense, an opportunity to celebrate and consider how to move forward in a productive way.

“It means a lot for people to come out and share, and I think help people get over it a little more, and hopefully people will reflect more on what’s going on globally,” said Salmon, a 30-year resident. “The earth is trying to tell me something. The voice is getting louder and louder, and this isn’t the end of it.”

Lifelong Windsor resident Mike Mosiurchak, 38, wore an American flag tank top and swapped out 4-year-old son Aceyn’s bicycle helmet for that of a fireman to complete an outfit popular among several children there for the fall costume parade, but also pay tribute. Behind blue spectacles, Aceyn said he had his eye on a magician making balloon animals, but last year’s Halloween duds still fit and he and dad were glad to attend. They even got a photo with Gustafson and a member of the Sonoma County sheriff’s department.

“This is typically a celebration of the community,” Mosiurchak said of the yearly Halloween pumpkin jamboree. “But today is a special celebration and we’re just recognizing the heroes, the firefighters and police departments — the ones who saved our community. We’re feeling really grateful, and really blessed.”

Families still were able to enjoy the usual jamboree activities, including carving and painting miniature pumpkins and building their own 6-foot-tall, take-home scarecrow. Because of the Kincade fire’s sudden assault last week on daily life, Windsor also plans to host a make-up Halloween this Saturday.

But Sunday’s celebratory community gathering adapted from a truncated farmers market with the seasonal add-ons to make way for a couple ladder trucks and the crews aboard them.

The event’s transition was welcomed by Sasha Martin, 33, of Santa Rosa, who said she brings her young kids to the Windsor farmers market nearly every Sunday. She also was forced to evacuate for the Kincade fire, as she did for the blaze two years ago, and felt compelled to attend. Martin dressed as a pirate to coordinate with son Brewster, 3, who wore a Captain Hook costume and daughter Jasmine, 2, in the role of Tinker Bell.

“We’re definitely involved in the community, and this is our farmers market,” Martin said. “We may not live in Windsor, but we love Windsor. There’s definitely a lot of gratitude for all of the emergency workers. We made sure we came.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

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