Vallombrosa 300x100 12.2017

Deathly quiet neighborhoods in stunned Santa Rosa

01 10.26.17_sr.drone PAGEAn aerial view of destruction in Santa Rosa is seen Oct. 11 after wildfires swept through the northern part of the city. Twenty-one major wildfires were active in Northern California at the peak of a swarm that broke out on hot, dry winds Oct. 8, burning more than 245,000 acres, destroying 8,400 structures and killing 42 people. Sonoma, Napa and Solano counties were hit hardest, with nearly 7,300 structures lost. The Tubbs Fire between Calistoga and Santa Rosa was the most destructive, destroying 5,300 structures and causing 22 fatalities. (CNS photo/DroneBase, Reuters)

October 26, 2017
Valerie Schmalz

Coffey Park, the Santa Rosa subdivision that the Tubbs Fire whipped through in minutes Oct. 8 after jumping six lanes of Highway 101, is “so quiet and so dark.”

Pat Gibson, the wife of a retired San Francisco firefighter, is back in her home with her husband Bernard. Theirs is one of about 100 homes in the subdivision of modest wood homes that were saved, while 900 burned.

“There are no street lights,” Gibson told Catholic San Francisco. “All the street lights are burned up. It’s just so desolate. It’s dead quiet and of course it smells awful.”

Coffey Park was a subdivision of teachers and firefighters and police officers, many of them San Francisco natives and many commuting to the city for work. They moved north for affordable homes and sunshine.

Gibson’s children grew up with hundreds of children, trick-or-treating at Halloween, playing sports and celebrating with block parties.

“We’re going to rebuild,” Gibson said. “That’s our neighborhood. We want those memories back. I think the majority of them are going to rebuild their houses.”

Pat Gibson’s younger sister Kathleen Bruno marveled that the Gibson house was the one where Petaluma firefighters chose to take a stand against the fire – because there was a fire hydrant in front and the four houses on Sweet Gum were still standing.

“It was in front of Pat and Bernard’s house,” Bruno said. “They had no idea he was a retired firefighter. How many times did he put his life on the line? How many times did he save other people’s lives?”

Bruno, a parishioner at St. Catherine of Siena in Burlingame, and her sister Liz Bruno organized a 15-passenger van of donations that filled within hours as friends spread the word via email and Facebook.

“They love with their heart and their soul,” Kathleen Bruno said. “They have a huge community. All their best friends lost everything.”

Gibson was in tears as she described a young woman, 29, she used to babysit. The woman fled the fire with her husband, a state firefighter, along with their children ages 3 and 15 months and her grandfather. Her husband raced up the hill to rescue the older man from a nearby memory care facility, saying, as Gibson recalled, “‘I’m going to get your grandfather.’”

As the mother began backing out of the driveway, her husband “came barreling down the street,” Gibson said.

“The fire is chasing them,” she said. “The embers were the size of bricks.”

There was a traffic jam in leaving the subdivision, and the parents made a pact that if the fire got to the car, as the young mother related to Gibson, “I was going to put my grandfather in the walker, backward, and my husband would grab the kids.”

“If we have to run for it,” she told her husband, “you take the kids.”

Fortunately, Gibson said, the family and everyone else in vehicles escaped the fire. Police cars had arrived to direct traffic.

“I am sure there are thousands and thousands of those incredible stories,” Gibson said.

Meanwhile, Gibson’s son Kevin, who had just moved to San Francisco, posted on Facebook, “My hometown is in flames” and that he was gathering donations.

Bruno saw her nephew’s post, called St. Rose Parish in Santa Rosa and left a message. Parochial vicar Father Jose Isaac Alejandro de la Cruz returned the call and told them they could bring donations.

“I said to my sister, ‘I know where to rent a van, we’re ready to go,’” Bruno recalled. “She said, ‘We don’t have anything.’ Within 24 hours we had filled the van.”

Father de la Cruz said people started helping immediately.

“People started coming from San Francisco, Oakland, Sacramento, San Jose, and many people from this area,” he said. “I said, ‘who told them we have this open for people?’ They said, ‘I looked it up and saw it on the Internet (that) Santa Rosa Catholic church is open to bring gifts for people who lost their house.’”

“Their belief in God, their belief in Jesus, their belief in helping each other, is the best way we can do on earth, “ Father de la Cruz said. “In this moment, I can see many people have feeling for each other.”

“It was a beautiful effort that converged,” said Bruno of her family’s outreach, adding that one man sent her an email to say he was giving $1,000 to the fire relief effort after receiving her note. “The outpouring of generosity we saw in 24 hours was unprecedented.”

For Pat Gibson, one of the most emotional moments was when her friend walked out of church on Sunday as Gibson stood talking with her two sisters and son. She had asked Kathleen to set aside suitcases so her friend would have somewhere to put the clothes she had purchased because the fire had burned everything. The two women, who had gone on vacations together with their families all their lives in the town, saw each other and fell into each other’s arms, crying.

“I feel so guilty, even though it’s not my fault,” Gibson said. “That our life is intact and theirs in shambles.”

Bruno said then her sister’s friend walked over to Bruno and said, “Are you collecting nonperishables? And then she said, ‘Oh, honey go to the car and get the stuff we brought.’”

“There’s a woman who’s lost everything, and she’s giving,” said Bruno. “The goodness of the human spirit knows no bounds.”


22 Sweetgum PAGEA scene on Sweet Gum Street in Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park neighborhood in the wake of the Tubbs Fire. (Photo courtesy Bruno family)


22 10.26.17_KatieBruno.fire.family PAGEGathering in the fire’s aftermath are, from left, Bernard Gibson, Kathleen Bruno, Pat Gibson, Liz Bruno, Rachelle Gibson, Kevin Gibson, Shawn Canepa, Chad Canepa and young Cameron Canepa in Chad’s arms. The Gibsons live in Coffey Park and their home was among the 100 surviving of the neighborhood’s 1,000 homes. The Brunos jumped into immediate action after the fire with moral support and a vanload of supplies for affected families. (Photo courtesy Bruno family)


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