Sonoma County's Latino business owners face upheaval in wake of 2017 wildfires
When the Tubbs fire tore through Santa Rosa last year, it left behind a wide path of destruction and displacement.
Local business owners faced an added challenge: dealing with the disruption to their businesses while coping with the upheaval in their personal lives.
Some, like ice cream entrepreneur Griselda Benítez, would lose their businesses to the wildfires, consumed directly by the flames or the economic dislocation that followed. Others, like the owners of Lupe’s Diner in Windsor and the Tipsy Taco & Cantina in Santa Rosa, found themselves fighting to keep their businesses running while also figuring out how to rebuild a home.
A year later, many are still struggling to return their professional and personal lives to normal.
Here are the stories of how the Tubbs fire changed the lives of three Latino business owners in Sonoma County.
‘It was as if everything was falling apart’
Even entrepreneurs who weren’t touched by the fires were affected by their aftermath. A prolonged power outage spelled the end for Griselda Benítez’s beloved mobile ice cream business — her frozen inventory reduced to a melted puddle when the power shut off across southeast Santa Rosa.
Even if she had ordered more product, there was no one to sell to for almost a month, she said. With the air quality so poor, there were no young families or children outside to entice. Gone were the smiling faces, racing toward Benítez’s carts and ice cream truck with change in outstretched palms.
With no income, her eight employees left to find other jobs.
The first month after the fire was devastating for the family. On top of their usual rent on the house, they had to continue to pay rent on a business that wasn’t functioning. When the power went back on at their home, all their food was spoiled. Her children were kept home from school for three weeks.
“It was as if everything was falling apart,” she said in Spanish. “My house hadn’t burned, but the trauma was there.”
She began to clean houses to build up some income, but it took a long time for her to unpack the bags she kept at the front door — just in case the flames returned. She didn’t sleep for weeks.
Six months after the fires, she was diagnosed with depression and anxiety.
She hopes to restart the ice cream business in the spring.
“For many it has not been a normal life after the fires,” she said.
‘The priority right now is my house’
Guadalupe “Lupe” Licea and Carlos Licea bought their Coffey Park home on San Miguel Road in 1989. When it burned down early on the morning of Oct. 9, all they could do was watch from afar as its security cameras beamed the smoked-filled footage more than 2,000 miles to the southeast — the Liceas’ eyes fixed to a computer screen while on vacation in Mexico City.
The emotional toll incurred by losing their home meant a decision to shutter their Windsor restaurant, Lupe’s Diner, for four days.
When they returned to normal business hours, regulars turned out in full force to support the neighborhood institution and its owners. Some came with notes of sympathy, others with gift cards and still more with hugs — eager to help out in whatever way they could.