Residents seek normalcy in California city hit hard by fire
SANTA ROSA, Calif. (AP) — At Willie Bird’s Restaurant near Santa Rosa’s downtown, life goes on amid the haze.
Saturday morning, regulars crowded the bar for bloody marys and greasy breakfasts as smoke from a wildfire billowed black and ominously outside.
“You just want to get the fire out of your mind,” said Doug Ferroggiaro, a retired iron worker from nearby Rohnert Park.
Sheri Laugero and her two friends also sat at the bar, mapping a strategy for how to get back to her undamaged Santa Rosa home, which is in an evacuation zone and off-limits. She wants clean clothes.
“You kind of need a lot of it right now,” said Laugero, who plans to return to work Monday as a records clerk at an area hospital.
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 Russian River Brewing Co. 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 as she sipped the brewery’s popular Pliny the Elder.
Russian River 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 many more sad stories than usual were shared at the bar.
“I just feel we need to be here,” bartender Nick Atchison said.
The wildfires raged all week just a few miles from the brewery; some of the city’s 2,800 destroyed homes are even closer.
Inside, the fires are the topic of nearly all conversations. Outside, ash falls from skies made overcast by acrid smoke. 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 neighbors.
Motorists on U.S. Highway 101 passed a gray ghost town of a neighborhood turned to ash by the fire that jumped the freeway Sunday night, and they 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 hall have been turned into evacuation centers to house some of the 4,000 newly homeless. The city’s hotels and motels are full and charging premium prices.
“We’ve lost almost 5 percent of the housing stock in Santa Rosa,” Mayor Chris Coursey said during a Friday news 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 welcomed customers at Murphy’s Irish Pub.
“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 with coffee cups in hand, hoping to snag some hamburger for their two rescue greyhounds. The couple has been living out of a hotel since early Monday when they fled their home with their 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 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.
Associated Press writer Janie Har in Sonoma contributed to this report.
Follow the AP’s complete wildfire coverage here: https://apnews.com/tag/Wildfires.