When we talked to artists, chefs and creatives affected by the North Bay fires just one month into their new realities, they were dealing with the immediate aftermath of the devastation — finding ways to comfort their communities and come to terms with loss and uncertainty. Six months later, national media outlets are long gone from Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino Counties. Lots have been cleared, businesses reopened, construction has begun.
But for eight of the subjects of our initial post-fire stories from last November — Norma Quintana, Mark and Terri Stark, Heather Irwin, Allen Sudduth, Brain Fies, Robin Pressman and Mick Loveland — life is anything but back to normal.
Some have turned their trauma into fuel for new creative projects, others are in a holding pattern of temporary housing and insurance delays. But sharing their talents — whether that's through photographs, delicious meals or healing music — has helped them move forward on new, unexpected paths, after those fateful days of October 2017.
'This is When the Real Work Begins'
The last time we spoke to Norma Quintana she was literally sifting through the ruins of her burnt-out Napa home.
Gloved and crouched over the rubble, she pulled out small objects and photographed them with her iPhone. Fifty of those images became a series she calls Forage from the Fire. An acclaimed photographer, documentarian, and collector, Norma’s response was instinctual: capture a visual record of the events that had detonated her community. She had no idea that in the weeks and months to come the images would strike a healing chord with others who’d lost everything to the blazes.
Says one fire victim after viewing Norma’s image of a charred Nativity scene, “I thought of all the Nativities and Christmases I have seen since I was a little girl and realized that while things thing can be damaged and even disappear, the memories never leave. That thought alone helps me a lot.”
Norma has since become familiar with this response. “These pictures help people break down their trauma into parts, and somehow that makes it easier,” she says. She is applying for a grant to study human trauma and wants to return to her first photographic love, portraiture, to capture her insights.
“There are so many people in our society whose lives have been turned upside down by forces completely beyond our control. We need to understand what is happening to them and why.” The recent killing of three mental health workers in Napa County veterans home by a former army rifleman believed to be suffering from extreme post-traumatic stress disorder has spurred her determination to dig in to the problem.
Meanwhile, Forage from the Fire has prompted Napa’s Rail Arts District organization (RAD) to offer Quintana the opportunity to print her images on electrical boxes and transformers along the Napa Valley Wine Train line. And, after six months bouncing from one temporary lodging to another, her family has bought a new home in a new part of town.
But perhaps most gratifying has been the outpouring of gifts sent to Norma, mostly by strangers, to help her replace the books, images and collections she lost in the fire.
“I can feel it,” she says. “It’s taken a while. But I am starting to feel at home again. For me, this is when the real work begins.” —David Markus
'I've Learned That I Can Withstand a Lot'
In the immediate aftermath of the Tubbs Fire, Robin Pressman was at her Sunday morning radio show in Sonoma County, playing “music for keeping us up and going.” She'd lost her house and all her belongings, and didn't know where she'd go next. But she knew that the songs she played helped.
Six months later, Pressman finds herself drawn to the song “Less & Less,” by the folksinger Tim O'Brien, about living with fewer possessions. She's since moved into a 350-square-foot shack in Berkeley, “one-tenth the size of my old house.” She rescued a few things while sifting through the ashes of her Santa Rosa home — ceramic artworks by both her mother and her husband's mother, and some only-partially-melted bronze pieces — and she's gotten closer to rebuilding her CD collection with the help of friends and fellow DJs.
Certain other changes in Pressman's life accelerated after the fires. Her husband, Peter, moved into a nursing home, one of those eventualities that became expedited by the loss of their home. In addition to hosting “The Sunday Muse” on KRSH-FM in Santa Rosa, she also went full-time at classical station KDFC in November, and now hosts the afternoon show “The Home Stretch,” a job for which she'd been auditioning when the fires hit.
The one uncertainty remains Pressman's property. Pressman was dropped by her insurance company late last summer due to fire danger, the fifth coverage provider to do so right before the fires hit. Left to take what was offered by her mortgage company's insurance — which undervalued the house by about half its true value — “I just got the check I got and was done with it,” she says. She's currently researching if it's financially feasible to build a new house on the lot in order to sell it and recoup her losses. If not, she says, she'll simply sell the land she called home for 18 years.
“I guess I've learned that I can withstand a lot,” Pressman says today. “Even though what you could say is 'the worst' has happened, I feel pretty resilient, and pretty strong.” —Gabe Meline
'Hopeful Still Feels a Long Way Off'
When we adapted Santa Rosa illustrator Brian Fies’ A Fire Story last fall, the resulting animated video narrated by Fies himself drew more than 2 million views. “I think it’s the first-person reporting that people really connected with,” says Fies, who detailed in an 18-page comic strip his and his wife’s evacuation, the discovery of losing their home, and what that experience felt like in the immediate days and weeks that followed.
Six months later, from a rental home on the Russian River, Fies continues to illustrate and write about his experience — his decision to rebuild, his dealings with FEMA, and all the what-next questions that appear after you’ve lost just about everything. Together, they will fill a 160-page graphic novel that he hopes to finish by next year. “It’s turning out to be a long, hard slog,” says Fies of the recovery and rebuilding process. “Hopeful still feels a long way off — we haven’t built a new normal. But we are all looking forward to the day when we are back with our neighbors, opening a bottle of something, and toasting that we all made it.”
In the full-length novel, Fies plans to take a journalistic approach, drawing on other people’s stories, as well as offering context of how the drought and climate change contributed to the deadly fire.
With the rental market more stabilized now than in the immediate months after the fire, Fies and his wife plan to move closer to Santa Rosa soon. Among the surprising gifts that family and friends have shared with them over the last few months are photographs of his family, including many moments captured that Fies never even knew existed. “We’ve realized how many friends we really have — just how kind and generous they all are,” Fies says. —Kelly Whalen
'We Were Pretty Lucky'
When we spoke with local guitar hero Allen Sudduth last week, he was moving into his new home in the hills near Santa Rosa’s Bennett Valley neighborhood. He and his wife lived at a friend’s summer home in Guerneville in the months after the deadly wildfires destroyed their house and now, almost half a year later, they have returned to Santa Rosa.
“Everything came to us through personal connections and networking,” Sudduth says. “We were pretty lucky in that regard.”
But Sudduth isn’t done dealing with the aftermath of the fire. The fires took almost everything from him, including his sizable collection of musical instruments and recording equipment. Six months later, Sudduth’s insurance claim is still open, and he and his wife haven’t decided whether or not they’ll rebuild their house on their property in Coffey Park. He says his dealings with his insurance company have been great, but they’re not ready to make a commitment yet.
“A lot of people came up short on their insurance, in terms of rebuilding,” Sudduth says.
Since the fire, Sudduth has been focusing on his music. He’s still got the five guitars he picked up in the weeks after he lost his house, and he’s been working on a benefit album with fellow Santa Rosa musicians called After the Fire.
He also still stands by his decision to only grab his dad’s Martin when he evacuated. He realizes now that what he saved is going to become a family heirloom.
“A week or two after the fire, we went down to Oakland to visit my son and he said, ‘Bring down the Martin; I want to hear you play it,’” Sudduth says. “He picked it up and started playing it, and I went, ‘Where the f**k did you learn to play like that?’ He’s a really good musician.”
“At that moment, I knew I had made the right decision to save it, so he could inherit it.” —Kevin L. Jones
'The Community, Everyone, Really Came Together'
When KQED first talked with Terri and Mark Stark in the days after their restaurant, Willi’s Wine Bar, burned down, they were unsure if they could rebuild on the historic property site. Now, instead of rebuilding, the Starks are in negotiations to lease a restaurant space in Santa Rosa to open the new Willi’s.
The Starks, who own five other restaurants in Sonoma County, were heroic in their efforts to feed evacuees and first responders during the initial days of the fires. They also supported their employees by reopening their restaurants as soon as possible and finding work at their other establishments for the displaced Willi’s staff.
According to Terri, the wine tourism season has started, and people are coming back to the area, alleviating fears that business would tank in the aftermath of the fires. But Terri says, “Things are far from being back to normal.”
Employees who previously worked at Willi’s are excited about the restaurant reopening. “They miss each other,” Terri says. “They want to be part of Willi’s again and work together.” If everything goes according to plan, they hope to open the new restaurant on Oct. 9, 2018, the first-year anniversary of the fire.
“If there is one thing to be said — something positive out of such a horrible occurrence — it is that the community, everyone, really came together,” Terri says. “For anyone who needed help, people were there to do what they could.”
The couple also has a new restaurant in the works – a New York-style Jewish deli in Santa Rosa. “We really need one up here,” Terri says. “There are not that many in the Bay Area, let alone up here.”
To be named Grossman’s (Terri’s maiden name is Gross, shortened from Grossman), the restaurant will make its own challah, rye bread and bagels. And according to Terri, it will be “Jew-ish.” —Wendy Goodfriend
'People Still Want to Enjoy Music'
The Loveland Violin Shop in Santa Rosa has been a hub for Sonoma County’s string players since 1980. Thankfully, the downtown, family-run business survived the North Bay fires, and the owners helped out musicians who’d lost precious instruments in the disaster by offering discounts and assistance with filing insurance claims.
But the store’s owner, Mick Loveland, wasn’t so lucky when it came to his personal property near Calistoga.
“It was raining embers at the front of house,” Mick’s son Julian, who was looking after his parents’ longtime home when the fire spread, told KQED last November. (Mick was away traveling at the time.) “I could see a whole wall of flames.”
Loveland has been working to pull his life back together ever since. “Our lot has been cleared, and we are in the process of getting our dead trees logged to allow us to rebuild,” Loveland says. But rebuilding is a nightmare. “We are constantly having to deal with the insurance company, the loggers, foresters, the well person, the septic person, the county, shopping for clothes, etc. It’s all-consuming.”
Loveland recently bought a mobile home and is planning to move into it when the lease on the rental he’s currently in is up in May. “It’s a place to reside while we rebuild,” he says. “We’ll resell it when we finish the new house.”
Despite his rebuilding woes, Loveland remains optimistic. He’s particularly touched by the kindness and generosity shown by many of the people in his community. “This is still a beautiful area to live with lots of wonderful people,” he says. “Nature is doing its job of healing. The land will repair itself!”
And Loveland says business at the Loveland Violin Shop has been brisk in recent months. “Not particularly because of the fires, but in spite of them,” he says. “People still want to enjoy music.” —Chloe Veltman
'There Are a Lot of People Here That Feel Left Behind'
When Heather Irwin and her family evacuated their home during the North Bay fires, one of their many concerns was accessing food during the disaster. Irwin, who is a food journalist, was inspired to do something to help other families facing similar difficulties. Mobilizing her connections in the local community, she brought food professionals and volunteers together to make healthy and safe meals for displaced families. And Sonoma Family Meal was born.
After feeding families in need in the days immediately after the fire began, when SFM made 2,000 meals a day, they regrouped around Thanksgiving and applied for non-profit status to get funding to continue their efforts. SFM is now feeding up to 50 families – a population that is falling through the cracks of the system – and they have a waiting list of 25 people.
“I learned how passionate our food community is and how much people care," Irwin says. "And that’s what really drives me."
Even with generous donations from local sources like the Redwood Credit Union, Mark and Terri Stark, and Kendall Jackson, SFM needs significantly more funding to operate for the rest of the year. They also have plans to create an emergency food network, so a system is in place if (and more likely, when) there are similar disasters in the future.
"These families are suffering and there are a lot of people here that feel left behind, they feel the world has moved on," Irwin says. "They are really scared and if we can just offer them a couple of meals a week so they can sit down as a family and take that pressure off, I think it’s pretty darn worth it.” —Wendy Goodfriend
For more stories from artists in the wake of the fires, click here.
For arts stories you won't read anywhere else, come to KQED's Arts and Culture desk.