Golis: A pall of smoke reminds us of those horrible days

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In a cafe in this Inyo County town, we came upon a table encircled by people in Cal Fire gear. Sorry to interrupt your lunch, we said, but we live in Santa Rosa, and we just wanted to say thank you.

As others nodded, one confirmed that he was among the thousands of firefighters who traveled to Sonoma County in October of 2017. They came to battle fires that destroyed more than 5,300 homes and killed 24 people.

Flash forward a few days from this offhand conversation in a Lone Pine diner. Cal Fire crews and firefighters from all over the western United States now find themselves confronting a new round of catastrophic fires.

And we wonder if the guys eating lunch in that cafe are now among the men and women who traveled hundreds of miles from home to help other communities survive.

In the foothills east of Chico, at least 7,000 homes were destroyed last week in the town of Paradise, and while the search for victims continues, we know at least 71 residents died when wind-swept flames roared through the town.

Until last week, the Tubbs fire in Sonoma County was the most disastrous fire in California history. Now, barely a year later, the Camp fire has proven to be even more destructive.

In California, where millions of people live in areas vulnerable to wildfires, our world is changed. People and governments now confront hard choices. Where do we build, and how do we build? How can we bolster our firefighting capacity? How do we improve emergency warning systems and evacuation plans? How will changes in climate affect the future, and what should we do about it?

More than a hundred miles away in Sonoma County, the yellow pall of smoke from the Paradise fire last week became a cruel reminder of what happened 13 months ago. Especially for friends who lost their homes and their neighborhoods, these were tough days. The images in the news were all too familiar.

Around town, people trying to escape the smoke stayed inside most of the time. Schools were closed. Outside activities were canceled. Face masks came into fashion.

And people tried to go about their business without thinking too much about how a wildfire changed their lives.

At that cafe in Lone Pine, I was surprised when I found myself choking up while thanking those first responders. Even for someone who didn’t lose his house, the emotions remain close to the surface. This was our town, forever changed by a fire that came in the night and destroyed the homes of dozens of friends.

If asked, people in Sonoma County would say that the grieving will take time. “The big takeaway is that this is a process not an event,” Santa Rosa psychologist Louise Packard told me last December. “The initial trauma and shock, the losses, are just beginning … The grief and trauma work involved in a tragedy of this magnitude is long lasting and will take years to process.”

In the past year, fire victims have learned to cope with the many uncertainties associated with a slow and uneven recovery. Rebuilding one home is not the same as rebuilding thousands of homes, and the big and small details of life won’t be replaced in a month or a year — and some may never be replaced.

The outpouring of support from people near and far has been inspiring. The responses show us what people can achieve when summoned by compassion and generosity. More than ever, people need to look out for each other. In Sonoma County, people continue to honor their shared commitments and, over time, that will make all the difference.

Finally, we come back to the first responders and our impromptu visit in a cafe hundreds of miles from home.

At the end of the week, Cal Fire reported that more than 9,400 men and women were battling three major fires in California. The count includes more than 60 firefighters from Sonoma County fire departments.

Firefighters, police officers, sheriff’s deputies, utility workers, volunteers — we ask them to perform grueling and risky jobs and, along the way, to serve witness to what were once unimaginable scenes of devastation and heartbreak.

What we’ve learned in the past 13 months is that a tough job just got tougher. Now would be a good time to honor these men and women, recognizing that they deserve both our gratitude and the resources they need to do their jobs.

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at

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