Historic North Bay firestorm shuts down Sonoma State campus

 STAR // Paul Gullixson  A destroyed car looks out over Santa Rosa to the west on Alturia Drive near The Boulders at Fountaingrove, where hundreds of homes were lost in the Oct. 9 firestorm.

STAR // Paul Gullixson

A destroyed car looks out over Santa Rosa to the west on Alturia Drive near The Boulders at Fountaingrove, where hundreds of homes were lost in the Oct. 9 firestorm.

For students, it all started with a phone call at 4:13 a.m. on Oct. 9. This wasn’t an alarm to wake up for classes, but an SSU alert warning students about fast-moving fires that were sweeping through the area. Twenty-two minutes later, classes had been suspended until noon. By the end of the day Oct. 11, the university had shut down the campus and required all students to leave. The university would then remain closed until Oct. 17. The area and its residents surrounding Sonoma State were going through the most destructive fires in state history. 

It was a fire that left no one connected with Sonoma State University untouched. More than 30 students, faculty and staff, including SSU President Judy K. Sakaki, lost their homes while dozens were evacuated. 

“I am still in a state of shock and denial,” said senior psychology and criminology student Alina Robello who lost her home of 20 years in the Foothills neighborhood of Santa Rosa. “A neighbor sent a video and a picture. Aside from a few pillars and a rock wall, the house is gone.” she said. “We read about horrific natural disasters in school and think ‘wow that is horrible but it won’t happen to me’ and we go on with our lives. Nothing can prepare someone for a tragedy of this magnitude.” 

Over the next eight days, as many as 14 fires ripped through more than 213,000 acres across four counties, leaving more than 6,000 homes and other structures destroyed. As of Tuesday, the death toll stood at 41 including 22 in Sonoma County alone. In addition, throat-stinging smoke and ash continued to linger throughout the North Bay. 

High winds throughout the week brought the fires closer to SSU, but the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office reminded residents via alert notifications that the fires did not hold an ‘immediate threat’ to Rohnert Park. 

However on Oct. 11, due to the growing poor air quality and the unpredictable weather patterns, the university made the decision to close campus and require all students to leave. Those who didn’t have the means to leave, needed to report to the Student Center with a ‘go-bag’ and were then assisted by SSU in finding a ride and a place to stay. 

“For the university leaders, the safety of the students was at the foremost consideration,” Pat Harrison, the temporary public information officer in the Emergency Service Center at SSU. “The concern was the flames that could be seen from the eastern part of campus. The fire officials said there was a clear and present danger. When we were cleaning the campus we found burned material...fire officials gave us good advice. We did it out of an abundance of caution.” 

Mandatory evacuations were ordered for H and G sections and a voluntary evacuation for K section due to the Sonoma Complex Fire that burned east of Rohnert Park the day the fires broke out, but were lifted that same afternoon. 

On Oct. 11, residents grew concerned from a structure fire burning on Roberts Road off Petaluma Hill Road east of campus, however the Sonoma County Sheriff’s office said it was unrelated to the fires and was under control. 

From Sonoma to Napa, residents were evacuated from their homes not knowing if they would have anything to go back to. For most Santa Rosa residents, they only had minutes to leave before the Tubbs Fire engulfed their home. 

In all the wreckage, Robello still has hope that her community will rebuild. “[Santa Rosa] is in pretty bad shape right now but I am confident that we will build a community that is infinitely stronger than the one that just fell,” she said. “It will take a very long time but it will happen.” 

SSU President Judy K. Sakaki also lost her home. In an email sent to all faculty and students on Oct. 10, she shared that she lost her home in the Fountaingrove neighborhood to the Santa Rosa Tubb’s fire. “Patrick and I lost our home, and this makes me think about what really matters and how important it is that we care for each other,” Sakaki said. “I am grateful that our community is working together to support and help each other.” 

Sakaki’s husband Patrick McCallum detailed the panic they felt after barely escaping with their lives. “Outside, our yard, our porch and every house was ablaze,” McCallum told the San Francisco Chronicle. “It was an inferno all around us.”

For student Kalia Richardson’s home, her family could only grab immediate necessities after knowing they had to leave when the power went off. Her mother grabbed the dog, her purse and the several medications she has as a transplant patient. Her father took the shirts he never wears and the family safe. In the minutes they had to evacuate, the family was unable to grab photos of Richardson’s late brother. She has been asking her community to send her digital or physical photos they might have of her brother or the family.

For Richardson, the recovery process is only beginning and she asks the community for support during these times, but thanks people for coming together to help. 

“We need to keep in mind that this recovery isn’t over after a couple of weeks,” she said. “The outpour of donations and volunteering is amazing, I just hope everyone will still be as compassionate in a year.”

Sakaki has since returned to work at the university with plans to host an event with CSU Chancellor Timothy P. White, Associated Students President Wilson Hall and Academic Senate Chair Carmen Works on Oct. 18 at 5 p.m. in order to give gratitude to the community and fire responders. 

As containment levels rise and the skies clear, the university has started its relief efforts for students and faculty affected by the fires. 

NomaNeeds, a public Facebook group, allows members of the university to share resources like housing and childcare. NomaCares will open Wednesday in Schulz 3001 and will assist students and employees in connecting them with appropriate services based on their needs. The university is also urging all students and faculty to fill out a survey which will go in helping the campus prepare and addresses the greatest needs.  

Lisa Vollendorf, Sonoma State’s executive vice president and provost, detailed these efforts and provided her own sentiments on the natural disaster in a campus-wide email on Monday. “It is impossible, quite honestly, for me to put in my own words the difficulties faced by some community members. I was particularly struck by one person, who lost so much but said so little: “home and car gone, everything lost.”

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As of now, the university has no plans to extend the fall term because of missed classes. 

Photos posted by on the university’s Facebook page show facilities workers clearing debris and ash from parking lots and buildings around campus.

Harrison said the university has been cleaning all buildings of smoke and ash within the week and have replaced all air filters. “Since the fires, the environmental safety faculty have been thinking about ways to clean the accumulation of ash and dust,” she said. “Water trucks have been coming through to clear ash on sidewalks and special cleaning crews to help where windows were left open. All of those structures were wiped down and cleaned. 

Harrison said the university will continue to take all the measures needed to assure a safe campus.