Life goes on in Northern California city hit hard by fire

By , on October 14, 2017


The wildfires raged all week just a few miles away from the brewery; some of the city's 2,800 homes destroyed by fire are even closer. Inside, the fires are the topic of nearly all conversations. Outside, ash continues falling from skies made overcast by acrid smoke and everybody knows somebody who has suffered in ways big and small. (Photo by Jeff Head/Flickr, Public Domain)
The wildfires raged all week just a few miles away from the brewery; some of the city’s 2,800 homes destroyed by fire are even closer. Inside, the fires are the topic of nearly all conversations. Outside, ash continues falling from skies made overcast by acrid smoke and everybody knows somebody who has suffered in ways big and small. (Photo by Jeff Head/Flickr, Public Domain)

SANTA ROSA, Calif. — At the Russian River Brewery in Santa Rosa’s downtown, life goes on amid the smoky haze.

Maker of the popular Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger beers, the brewery closed for just one day after wildfires ripped through the city’s northern edge, part of a series of wind-whipped blazes north of San Francisco that quickly became the deadliest in state history.

It reopened Tuesday amid power outages and mass evacuations, and there were many more sad stories than usual shared at the bar.

“I just feel we need to here,” bartender Nick Atchison said.

The wildfires raged all week just a few miles away from the brewery; some of the city’s 2,800 homes destroyed by fire are even closer. Inside, the fires are the topic of nearly all conversations. Outside, ash continues falling from skies made overcast by acrid smoke and everybody knows somebody who has suffered in ways big and small.

Pets are missing and out-of-town homeowners are lending their houses to burned-out neighbours.

And so it goes in Santa Rosa, a city of 175,000 that is a gateway to California’s fabled wine region in Sonoma and Napa counties. There’s devastation in one part of the city, but elsewhere locals are back at work and wine-loving tourists are popping up again.

The Santa Rosa vacation home four couples from Columbus, Ohio, expected to rent this week was destroyed before they arrived on their annual winery pilgrimage. So they rented rooms in a Bodega Bay hotel.

On Thursday, they drank pints at the brewery like they do every year and made plans to visits wineries unaffected by the flames.

“We are still glad we are here,” Anne Wheeler said.

Helen Willis ordered her usual Cowboy steak at the Santa Rosa Cattlemen’s restaurant Thursday night after it reopened earlier in the day for the first time since Sunday. She’s a retiree who lives nearby.

Aside from lost power, her home was undamaged. She and many other residents decided to go outside and brave the smoky air after sitting inside for a couple of days.

“I feel awful about the fires,” Willis said. “But I needed to get out.”

The commuter buses are starting to run on time on normal routes and a downtown mall has reopened while a rival mall remains closed in a commercial district without power.

Motorists on U.S. Highway 101 passed a grey ghost town of a neighbourhood turned to ash by the fire that jumped the freeway Sunday night and slow to rubber neck the three destroyed fast-food restaurants. Two exits later, the Denny’s remained open 24 hours, as always.

The county fairgrounds in Santa Rosa and a popular community centre have been turned into evacuation centres to house some of the 4,000 newly homeless. Hotels and motels in the city are full and charging premium prices.

“We’ve lost almost 5 per cent of the housing stock in Santa Rosa,” Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey said during a Friday afternoon press conference. “We’re looking at $1.2 billion in damage in Santa Rosa alone. It’s a huge hill we’ve got to climb.”

Residents, many of them wearing surgical masks outside, vowed to climb that hill.

At Franchettis’ Wood Fire Kitchen on Friday, the family owners were firing up their ovens to prepare a free pizza dinner for the community. “The love in the air is thicker than the smoke,” they posted on Facebook.

Nearby Sonoma, too, was starting to come back to life.

Buddy Chick opened Murphy’s Irish Pub on Friday.

“Somebody’s got to open,” he said, as Irish tunes belted out over outside speakers. “There are people out there that need to eat still.”

Eric and Julie Williams stopped by the pub with coffee cups in hand in the hopes of snagging some hamburger for their two rescue greyhounds that have been living out of a hotel since early Monday when the couple fled their home with the dogs, the clothes on their backs and Julie’s mother, who was visiting from New Mexico.

Their house is OK, although the power is out. Still, they were back at work, shipping out some orders for their company that sells therapeutic items for horses.

They know they are among the lucky ones.

“We were like, ‘let’s just get the orders and make it happen,’ and you feel better when you do that,” Julie said.