Sonoma County's Latino business owners face upheaval in wake of 2017 wildfires

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Special Coverage

This story is part of a monthly series in 2018 chronicling the rebuilding efforts in Sonoma County’s four fire zones: Coffey Park, Fountaingrove, the greater Mark West area and Sonoma Valley. Read all of the Rebuild North Bay coverage here.


Read all of the PD’s fire anniversary coverage here.

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.

Special Coverage

This story is part of a monthly series in 2018 chronicling the rebuilding efforts in Sonoma County’s four fire zones: Coffey Park, Fountaingrove, the greater Mark West area and Sonoma Valley. Read all of the Rebuild North Bay coverage here.


Read all of the PD’s fire anniversary coverage here.

Nov. 3 will mark the 15th anniversary for Lupe’s Diner in Windsor. Also about that time, the Liceas will mark their first night in their rebuilt Coffey Park home.

“I’m happy that it’s finally over,” Lupe Licea said. “It’s just like, you’re on hold, you’re on standby. You can’t buy anything. The stuff that you do have is not yours. Where you live is not yours. So I’ll finally start picking out our own stuff.”

Balancing the business and the rebuild has been especially taxing on the husband and wife, Lupe Licea said. To-do list items at the restaurant have gone unchecked, things like working on the menu and coordinating with staff. Luckily, her clientele has remained steady and she has a good crew, she said.

“But the priority right now is my house,” she said. “I need to focus on this first, and then I’ll get back and focus on my business 100 percent. It’s hard.”

Tipsy Taco co-owner: ‘I could not fail’

Santa Rosa’s Tipsy Taco & Cantina had only been open for five months when the Tubbs fire took its owners’ home.

The downtown restaurant was a passion project for Rosie Gutierrez and fiancé Miguel Calderon, who had long worked in the restaurant industry. It was their chance to make their mark on Santa Rosa — the city they called home and chose to raise their daughter in.

When the Tubbs fire raced through their Coffey Park neighborhood, they were on a family vacation in Southern California, with just the internet and phone calls to tether them to their house on Sansone Drive.

When they arrived that first day to survey the destruction, they had hoped to see at least the frame of their house, but were met with nothing more than a pile of rubble and ash.

Shaken, they headed to their Mendocino Avenue restaurant to gather what they could: printers, computers, important documents — uncertain whether the flames might rebound into Santa Rosa.

The flames did not and, a few days later, Gutierrez, now 32, decided it was time to reopen the restaurant. She needed the normalcy and figured others might need it, too.

“It kept my mind busy,” she said. “It kept me pushing forward knowing I have something to work for, something I can work hard at.”

With their house gone, they held daughter Giuliana Calderon’s sixth birthday party at the restaurant, inviting friends, cooking and reserving a bounce house for the occasion.

Since then, the restaurant has served as a guiding force for the young family — as refugees in Gutierrez’s parents’ home for nearly a year, through the beginning stages of the rebuild process, and while hunting for an apartment of their own.

“It’s definitely stressful and stuff, but it also made me realize how lucky I am to have something still,” she said. “That’s all I had left, so I had to definitely make it work. I could not fail.”

La Prensa Sonoma Editor Ricardo Ibarra contributed to this story.

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