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Santa Rosa in the Wake of the Wildfire

Sabrina Garity
November 14, 2017

As the sun set on California’s coast the night of October 8th, flames rose in Calistoga in what would become the most devastating wildfire in the state’s history. Winds whipped power lines down, causing sparks to fly across the dry hills of the area. Moving more than twelve miles in a mere three hours, the fire quickly cut across the region, setting upon northern Santa Rosa. By one in the morning, it had reached the city limits. Officials had chosen not to send out alerts at the onset of the fire, fearing panic would cause more mayhem. By four a.m., the winds had reached peaks of 60 miles per hour. These winds carried the flames deep into Santa Rosa and spread the fire to the surrounding areas, sweeping it across the once picturesque wine country landscape. It took the remainder of the month to completely contain the fire, with ten percent still burning on the 18th of October, ten days after the first spark. 

During those ten days, the landscape of Northern California was decimated by the Tubs Fire. It ravaged the communities, and left behind a wake of destruction that took the lives of 42 people. An estimated 3,000 homes were lost, included in the nearly 8,400 structures that were reduced to ashes. Among these structures were schools, community centers, businesses, and most significantly, neighborhoods of homes. With thousands of people displaced, insurance adjusters raced to get people into hotels, with goals of finding long term placement for their insureds. At Temporary Accommodations, we provided dozens of families with temporary housing solutions, and even more with hotel stays. Among these people were firefighters, policemen, medical professionals, teachers, and Americans that had all been rocked by the total loss of not only their homes, but their community. From the ruins, stories of neighborly love and the kindness of near strangers have emerged, and they have brought hope back into the ravaged city. Friends of friends opening their doors and welcoming in whole families who came with nothing but the clothes on their backs; massive donation efforts; and the charitable allowance of short term rentals to those displaced are all stories we here at Temporary Accommodations have heard. 

Michele Wojcik woke up at one in the morning to get a glass of water, and smelled smoke. Outside she saw “an orange glow over the hillside.” When she woke her husband, he assured her the fires were still far off, that the smoke was being blown by the Santa Ana winds. Two hours later, they received the text to evacuate. “I want people to know that there was no warning, that people left with nothing, there was no time to prepare for this. I woke the kids and I left the house in 15 minutes. I left my purse behind,” Wojcik said. Luckily, her husband, a recently retired Santa Rosa police officer, realized their neighbors were not stirring and sent their teenage son, Matthew, to bang on the door until they woke up. The neighbors credit the Wojcik’s with saving their lives--they hadn’t heard the evacuation call. Out of the Wojcik’s neighborhood of 195 homes, 6 were left standing.

Across town, the Keys family was also scrambling to escape the fire early that morning. When Mr. Keys woke up, the fire was “maybe 50 to 100 yards away,” and he raced to wake up his five children and get his family into the car. “My wife is an ER nurse and I work as a Rescue Mission Director, helping the homeless. We are wired for dealing with disaster, but when it happens to you, it really puts life into perspective,” he said. “Honestly, we hadn’t started processing it until a week ago. You know, we were so busy with getting everything together that we hadn’t had time to deal with what happened. We were in shock.” 

As these families and others recover from the worst wildfire in California history, heartwarming stories have come forth. For the Wojcik’s, hope came in the form of a Christmas tree brought by friends. They made ornaments with pictures from Facebook, and purchased “Baby’s First Christmas” books for the years her two sons were born. She began to tear up as she said, “I don’t really my miss my things, just the pictures and the memories, the things we can’t replace...but we were lucky compared to some.” 

For these families and many more, Temporary Accommodations was able to step in an alleviate the stress of finding insurance housing. Mr. Keys said of his experience, “Josh was fantastic--it seemed like he was looking 24 hours a day for a temporary house for my family. It really felt like we were his only client. His effort was huge.” Mr. and Mrs. Keys and their children were placed into temporary housing a few short days after we received their claim. For some families, going into a hotel wasn’t an option due to shortages of hotel rooms with kitchens. The Wojciks chose to relocate to Sebastapol for a month in a vacation rental as the market was inundated with prospective renters and a lack of housing, before coming back to a house in Santa Rosa. The temporary house they moved into was recommended to them by a friend of their mother, who offered it to them for rent and expeditated their previously planned remodel to accommodate them. Michele said “It was worth the wait. We’re grateful, truly grateful. Thank you.”