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Community Leaders Speak Out


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The destruction from the October wildfires is staggering, destroying neighborhoods and businesses, and leaving mountains of ash and debris. NorthBay biz asked community leaders to share their thoughts on this life-changing tragedy as the North Bay recovers and takes steps to rebuild.

Lisa Amador, Director, North Bay Strategy & Business Development, Sutter Health

As the thick black smoke and swarming embers from the firestorm engulfed Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital, it became obvious we needed to get our patients to safety. The staff quickly and calmly made arrangements, and within just a few hours we safely transported 77 patients—including eight tiny babies from the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit—to other hospitals. We also arranged safe transportation to evacuation shelters for about 100 neighbors who had come to the hospital seeking refuge.
Almost as soon as we evacuated the hospital, we began working to reopen it. With the tremendous support of Sutter Health, we reopened eight days after the fires. Unfortunately, the Shea House, where out-of-town families stay to be close to their hospitalized children, burned to the ground.
Sutter Pacific Medical Foundation was also affected and forced to close 13 care centers as the fire progressed. Within 48 hours, we reopened four care centers, shifted patients and equipment, staff and clinicians, and continued providing routine and urgent care to the community. Two weeks later, all but one care centerhas reopened.
This disaster has shown me the phenomenal dedication and commitment by the Sutter Health system, staff and physicians—114 of whom lost their own homes in the fire—to our patients and our community. We are #SonomaCountyStrong.
Now that our disastrous fire storm has ended, I'm focused on preventing another calamity that afflicts many communities after a natural disaster; the flight of economic resources and financial capital.

Lawrence Amaturo, Managing Partner, Amaturo Sonoma Media Group, LLC

Imagine a 30-year Sonoma County resident who lost all their material possessions that fateful night. Instead of replacing furniture, housewares and clothing from the same local retailers from which these goods were purchased, this resident spends their insurance check at Amazon and other out of town online retailers. Now imagine thousands of North Bay citizens doing exactly the same thing.
What a negative and irreversible impact this would have on their neighbors; those who've been employed by the very same local retailers who were bypassed for the sake of "convenience.” This "Second Disaster" effect would lead to an exodus of our working class and turn our once thriving communities into mere bedroom towns.
Together, we must support local retailers to rise above the flames and ash these fires have brought.

Marcus Benedetti, President & CEO, Clover Sonoma

As a family-owned and operated dairy based in Sonoma County for three generations, the wildfires have affected many of our employees, families and friends. We’ve always supported our community, but this experience has inspired us to help lift up and give back to those who have lost homes and who have experienced personal loss.
 We quickly organized in partnership with the Redwood Empire Food Bank to help distribute needed food staples to those directly affected by the fire. In addition to Clover Sonoma product donations, within hours of the fires destruction we provided our refrigerated food trucks to be used by evacuation centers to keep perishables while electricity was out. In addition to the $100,000-plus in product donations, we also started a Clover Sonoma Employee Fire Relief Fund within the company. The fund supports employees who lost their homes with $25,000 funded by the company along with a commitment to match up to another $25,000 of donations made by employees and others. We will also continue product donations and assess the needs of the community to determine how best we can help. Most importantly, we are inspired by and grateful for all the first responders who have worked tirelessly to protect our community. We are Sonoma Strong.

Michael Browne, Founder, Kosta Browne

What to say except that the fire events were mind-blowing—I’ve never seen anything like it. During the week of the fires, our community was basically in triage. Everyone was on high alert in case the winds shifted and the fire routes changed, and the fire remained unpredictable. It was amazing to experience our community coming together in ways that were truly awe-inspiring.
People who lost everything were out there helping as they could alongside people who didn’t lose anything. The fires took their toll on many families up and down the economic ladder. It didn’t discriminate. Needless to say, our community will take many years to heal, though that healing has begun in very good fashion. It’s hard to describe seeing the first responders and firefighters staged at the fairgrounds in Santa Rosa—tents, equipment and facilities. All temporary. A major effort and they did an incredible job, not relenting. There will be strong efforts to help people for some time and they will need it. Hard to imagine people trying to make an income who lost their home, cars and sometimes jobs because of the loss of property. It will be challenging for sure, but I believe our community will be stronger for it.

Jim Brush, President & CEO, Summit State Bank

As a community bank, we’re mandated to be prepared for disasters and have a written “business continuity planning document” in addition to performing an annual execution of the plan with our entire team. Even with all the planning, nothing can prepare you for the disaster we woke to on the morning of October 9. Several employees, customers and business owners lost their homes and much more, and our community was in crisis.
Our employees and management team rallied together to make sure everyone was safe and accounted for by using a pre-established phone tree and establishing a private Facebook group. Our IT Team and Branch Operations collaborated to open three of our five locations to serve our customers that Tuesday (Monday was a national bank holiday). Due to evacuations and heavy smoke, our headquarters and the Montgomery Village branches closed for several days. Our electronic banking services were fully functional so customers could access online banking and ezDeposit. Our team was available via emergency cell phones while our phone and email services were interrupted.
The next thing on the “to do” list was to meet and discuss how to support our employees, customers and community affected by the fire. First on the list was an Employee Emergency Fund, established by contributions from vendors, employees and the board of directors for employees and their families who have incurred extraordinary expenses, either by being displaced themselves or by assisting others who have been displaced. These funds are not loans, but rather donations.
Since community is at the center of all we do, we demonstrated our support by allocating $50,000 to the Redwood Empire Food Bank, Ceres Project, Catholic Charities and Rotary District 5130. A small group of community leaders met to talk about how we could make a difference, and through which established agencies would make the greatest impact. We carefully selected our charity partners so that 100 percent of our donated dollars are allocated to those most in need.
We’ve also established a disaster relief loan program to assist our customers who’ve been directly or indirectly affected by the fires, and we’re making accommodations to waive certain fees for services that were incurred during the firestorm, as well as loan payment deferrals and quick processing of cash advances.
As the days pass, the signs of grief have shown up in different ways for many. I wrote personal notes to our customers and community members who I knew were affected by the fire and people’s reactions were one of surprise and gratefulness. It seems like the little things, like inviting our employees to wear funny socks on Friday or Hawaiian attire brings a lightness that I believe everyone can use right now. We know the road to recovery will be long, but together, we’ll be a better Sonoma County.

Dave Canny, Senior Manager, North Bay & Sonoma Divisions, PG&E

PG&E has been a part of the fabric of the North Bay for more than 100 years, and we are working arm-in-arm with our customers to rebuild communities devastated by the October wildfires. As senior manager for PG&E’s North Bay and Sonoma divisions, I work with and alongside many employees and customers who have lost everything. It’s going to take a long time for our customers and the communities we serve to heal, but PG&E is here to help.
The safety and well-being of the customers and communities that have been affected is our top priority, and we know that restoring electricity and gas is an essential first step on the journey to rebuilding. Since restoring electric and gas service to all customers able to receive it, our focus has shifted to rebuilding and community support.
We are working directly with customers and in coordination with local developers, other utilities and cities and counties to facilitate the rebuilding process.
PG&E’s Service Planning & Design department has activated a dedicated team working directly with customers impacted by the fires to provide one consistent, streamlined rebuilding process in Napa, Lake, Sonoma and Mendocino Counties. Members of this team are located in PG&E offices in Santa Rosa, Napa and Ukiah.
On October 27, PG&E announced the activation of its disaster billing and credit policy, to ensure that billing is the last thing on our customers’ minds. As a part of this policy, we put a temporary billing hold, which stops bills during and after a disaster, for all customers in towns impacted by the wildfires; will not disconnect any customers within the disaster area for non-payment during this time; and finally we offer deposit relief for red tag customers by returning deposits on accounts, if applicable and won’t charge a new deposit for up to one year. Customers can reach us any time of day through our PG&E’s customer service helpline at 1-800-743-5000. We’re here to help.

Greg Choma, Ghilotti Construction

In the midst of the most devastating wildfires to ever hit California, the love and support for the North Bay community has been thicker than the smoke. Our hearts go out to all of victims and families of those who lost their lives to this horrific natural disaster. We thank the firefighters, first responders, law enforcement and everyone who has helped during these difficult times. At Ghilotti Construction, we’ve witnessed the devastation on a personal level as it has affected our family, friends and employees. During the fires, we had more than 30 families evacuated, and 10 employees lose their homes. To help during these extremely difficult times, Ghilotti Construction lent out water trucks and bulldozers to fight fires, housed and fed more than 250 National Guard Members at headquarters for three weeks, rented mobile homes for employees, set up a donation center for essentials, donated $150,000 to the Redwood Credit Unions North Bay Fire Relief Fund in Partnership with the Redwood Credit Union Community Fund, Inc., established a Fire Relief Fund for our employees who have lost their homes, and set up daycare for children without school and more. It will be a long road to recovery, but we at Ghilotti Construction are a family and are committed to doing whatever it takes to help our community get back on it’s feet.

Judy Coffey, R.N., Sr. Vice President and Area Manager, Kaiser Permanente, Marin-Sonoma

I witnessed the loss of homes, including my own and those of many friends and colleagues, and amazingly I saw first-hand the evacuation of our Kaiser Permanente Santa Rosa Hospital. In three hours, with the fire literally next door, a heroic team of physicians, nurses, staff, police, fire, CityBus, and ambulance safely moved 130 patients to other locations to continue their care. Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital and our Kaiser Permanente sister facility in San Rafael opened their doors to receive and care for our patients.
Since the early morning hours of October 9, we staffed an incident command center 24 hours per day to plan and implement the re-opening of all our Santa Rosa facilities. We received tremendous support from local physicians, nurses and staff as well as from our Kaiser Permanente Northern California leaders and medical centers. Together we reopened the hospital and our medical office buildings to our members and patients.
I couldn’t be more proud of our physicians, nurses and staff. I am forever grateful for the heroism of our first responders and the help of city, county, state, and national elected officials who regularly offered encouragement and support to Kaiser Permanente and our entire community. I send my heartfelt sympathy to everyone touched by this tragedy. Kaiser Permanente is committed to helping heal and restore the community we all love and call home.

Damon Connolly, Marin County Supervisor

The profound devastation is beyond comprehension. I was proud to see Marin County step up for their neighbors to the North. We sheltered hundreds of evacuees in designated shelters as well as in our homes. I personally had seven Santa Rosa relatives living with me as they waited out evacuation orders. According to Marin’s Center for Volunteer & Nonprofit Leadership, more than 10,000 people signed-up to volunteer in the effort.
Marin-based first responders fought on the fire line, while some of their families were evacuated and homes burned. At the peak of the fire, 154 Marin County personnel, eight strike teams each with five engines and five ambulances were in the fire zone. County employees opened a temporary evacuation center and stepped forward to care for the needs of evacuees. An estimated 500 evacuees were served, some with pets, over multiple nights. Medical care, social services and meals were provided around the clock. Marin County Free Library’s bookmobile provided children with a reprieve through books and storytellers, computers were set up by the IST department providing one of the most important commodities, information. Zumba classes got people up and moving, musicians performed, and art projects were led by people eager to help. Our work is only beginning. Count on Marin to continue to partner in the weeks, months and years ahead.

Russell A. Colombo, President & CEO, Bank of Marin

The recent Northern California wildfires devastated a number of our North Bay communities. Our immediate focus was on the health and safety of everyone in the affected areas. The loss of life and property, as well as the stress on the entire community, was catastrophic. But the exceptional work of firefighters, first responders, volunteers and our communities at large certainly speaks volumes about the bonds we share and our commitment to each other. Thank you to everyone who contributed to the immediate effort to aid fire victims.
Now a new phase begins as we move towards recovery. It’s going to take months or even years to get everyone back on their feet. Damage to the local economy and businesses will be substantial. At Bank of Marin, our staff and our customers are committed to the rebuilding and revitalization of the affected areas. By contributing dollars, volunteer hours, and time and expertise working with local businesses, we will help make a difference.
Our thoughts and prayers are with our friends in Sonoma, Napa, Lake, Solano and Mendocino counties who suffered losses in the wildfires. We will be supportive as long as it takes to help get all of our communities back and stronger than ever.
 

Katie Davis, 2017 President—Sonoma County Alliance, Public Affairs Manager, PG&E

Life changed for all of us on October 9 when hurricane force winds propelled multiple fires into our community. This was by far the scariest, the most devastating and the most personal disaster we have ever faced.  Several Alliance board members lost their homes as did countless other friends and family members.  Before the fires, we faced a multitude of complex challenges and now those challenges have only been exacerbated. 
But through the heartache and the challenges, there has been so much good.  Federal, state and local governments working together, community members and companies stepping up to help those in need, organizations like the Alliance and others determining how to mobilize to fill gaps.
As an organization of leaders, this is our time to put differences aside and work together to help our friends, families, colleagues and community. The Alliance will be there every step of the way to help this community rebuild and help businesses thrive again because we are the builders, the businesspeople, the environmentalists, the service groups, the nonprofits—we are an organization that has proven, for more than 40 years that we can get things done. Together, we can bring back our community.
 

Susan Gorin, Sonoma County Supervisor

At 10 p.m. on October 10, I received a phone call from Santa Rosa Fire Chief Tony Gossner. He said, “Susan, I’m so sorry, we tried to save your home, but we were too late.” And within minutes, I became yet another member of the “club to which none of us wanted to be a member.”
I’m one of the fortunate ones; I was able to guide a few friends around my house in the dark, while flames surrounded it to rescue a few items important to our family. Those few items bring me comfort and a sense of optimism that guides me through recovery. But so many others had no opportunity to pack more than their children and pets and flee into the firestorms before their homes were consumed. And tragically, too many did not escape the flames.
There are so many things for which I’m grateful. I’m grateful to our first responders for driving madly into the flames to rescue so many from their homes. I’m grateful that 342 different fire companies and law enforcement officers responded immediately to the requests for mutual aid, not knowing the extreme and deadly nature of the fires that roared over the hills and into the valleys along the spine of the Mayacamas and Sonoma Mountain. We should’ve known; these fires almost exactly followed the patterns of the Hanley and Nun’s Fire in 1964. In fact, CalFire used the historical maps of those fires to determine where to lay down the “dozer” lines as fire breaks to stop the fire coming further into Bennett Valley, Valley of the Moon, Sonoma and the north County.
The unprecedented destruction of Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino Counties is still being tallied; FEMA and Cal OES are with us for the long haul. The most devastating fire in California history—the Sonoma Complex Fires destroyed more than 6,800 structures, with more damaged, valued conservatively at $3bn with over 100,000 residents temporarily or permanently displaced.
I am grateful to all of our communities for proudly displaying their hand-painted signs thanking our first responders for saving so many of our homes and lives. The outpouring of volunteerism was staggering—chiefs preparing food, delivering water, food and snacks, donating clothing, blankets and pillows, providing massages and art therapy and entertainment for our children. The list goes on—this exemplifies the best of us. We are community. We’ll be part of the long recovery and rebuilding. We are #sonomacountystrong.

Gary Hartwick, President & CEO, Exchange Bank

Sonoma County is our home and Exchange Bank is here to help. Our commitment to the community dates back to 1890. We helped rebuild Sonoma County after the 1906 earthquake and we are here now to help our community rise from the ashes again. We are a strong community and we feel confident that though it will take time, we will continue to thrive.
Once again I see the amazing spirit, cooperation, support, kindness and resilience of our community. Even amid heartbreaking losses and devastation, the people in our community have helped, hugged, shared, donated and housed one another.

Doug Hilberman, President, AXIA Architects

Three weeks have passed and I find myself still only on the front edge of processing what just happened to my family and so many of my fellow community members. The speed the firestorm rifled through the Mark West area and up through our neighborhood was staggering. In an instant the fire just erased every memento, photo, drawing, and record of our family’s life together. I find myself squaring my shoulders facing forward because the door was shut behind me. I worry about my kids who are old enough to understand what happened, yet young enough to lack coping mechanisms to deal with the shock. I watch them display commendable bravery with each transition in housing. My prayers are with all families that are each experiencing the struggle of putting the pieces back together again.
The response teams, government agencies, KSRO and volunteers all deserve incredible applause. I have never been in the middle of a disaster like this. The speed of execution, level of communication, and the overflowing good will have been impressive and most appreciated. I hope that as we start the journey towards recovery we can maintain this community strength in working together.

Judy James, Director of Government Affairs, Comcast, Santa Rosa Metro Chamber of Commerce, Board Chair

As a third generation resident of Sonoma County, I’ve been experiencing a wide range of emotions these past couple of weeks. I've been shocked by the ferocity of Mother Nature and the scars she placed on the landscape and the people I’ve known all of my life. I’ve been humbled by the realization that living in "God's Country" doesn’t mean things are always perfect here. I’ve also been extremely proud of the unstoppable spirit of community that has always been a part of living here. Having spent time at several of the evacuation centers in the region, I’m amazed at the outpouring of generosity from our neighbors. As part of my role with Comcast, I was tasked with coordinating the installation of Wi-Fi and communication services for evacuees at several of the centers where our community gathered during the crisis. I couldn't be more impressed with the work done by our technicians and support staff—while many of them were affected by the same issues that brought so many of our community members to those gathering points. As the current board chair of the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber, I was amazed by the "can-do" attitude of the staff and membership as we all struggled to care for our families, employees, customers and businesses. Finally, as a friend to several displaced families that we were happy to shelter in our home, I felt their sincere gratitude, and my family's deep commitment to supporting our friends and neighbors. We will survive these bad times and emerge a stronger community because of them.

Brian Ling, Executive Director, Sonoma County Alliance

The impacts of the fire will forever change our landscapes and mind set. But underneath the ash and rubble, we have an opportunity for renewal that we need to grab hold of as a community. We all love so many things about Sonoma County, but there’s no reason to believe we can’t be better. We can start the improvement today.
Let’s extend the neighborly support that we have shared to all our local businesses. These businesses employ our friends and family and they represent the fuel that runs our economic engine. For a while, let’s forgo the convenience of online purchases and walk to the local market, drive to your neighborhood store, ride your bike to your favorite restaurant, maybe even take a ride on our new train! However you travel, wherever you choose to shop, just keep it local and keep your money flowing through the Sonoma County economy.
Then, we can help our City and County redevelop the homes and businesses that were lost. Let’s participate in the process and make sure our neighborhoods are everything they can be, and without unnecessary delay. We know what we like, we know what we want, and we know how to make it better. Stay strong, Sonoma County!
This has been a devastating time for our community. Our hearts are with all of the people of Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and Lake Counties who have been affected by the North Bay fires. We thank the firefighters and first responders, who worked tirelessly to aid our community. The safety and well-being of our employees and their families and all the residents of Sonoma County remain our top concern.
 
Our hearts go out to everyone whose lives have been changed by this disaster. Our pledge to you is that Exchange Bank will do everything possible to help rebuild and heal our communities.

Alan Maciel, Director, Petaluma Downtown Association

Having lost a house in the Valley fires two years ago, I know firsthand the impact on those who lost their homes and those who sprang into action. Although Petaluma was spared, the physical and emotional devastation of the fires brought out the best in our community. Shelters were set up overnight and run by volunteers. The real estate community mobilized throughout Petaluma delivering supplies, money, providing transportation services and helping Petaluma People Service Center. We helped operate the Share Program by working the phones and matching people in need of a place to live with those who had a place for them. Every brokerage in town had their agents helping out. As a Petaluma resident and a local realtor. I was proud but not at all surprised by the outpouring of community support. Sonoma County strong, Petaluma proud!

Brett Martinez, Chief Executive Officer, Redwood Credit Union

Our hearts go out to everyone who was affected by the North Bay fires. As always, RCU’s focus has remained on serving the needs our members, employees and communities. In the days following the fires, many of our employees were displaced and several lost their homes, so we provided support and assistance in a variety of ways, from temporary lodging to at-work childcare while schools were out.
 Our staff worked diligently to restore systems interrupted by outages in order to ensure members had access to their accounts when they needed it most. And we worked quickly with Senator McGuire and The Press Democrat to establish the North Bay Fire Relief fund to accept donations to assist those who were impacted.
We’re thankful to all the first responders from all over who helped fight fires and protect our community, and we’ve seen an incredible outpouring of support and money—from all over the country and the world— from people wanting to show their care and support for fire victims.
 Most of all, we’re grateful to our communities for coming together to support each other in a time of crisis. This is our home and our community, and we’re all in this together.

Belia Ramos, Napa County Supervisor

There was fire to the north, fire to the south, fire to the east and fire to the west. We were standing in a ring of fire. The flames engulfed homes, and smoke clung to the air, choking our community. We are not the same people. Our lives will forever be measured, yet again by pre- or post-disaster. We lost seven people to its fury. Our hearts break for their loved ones.
We ran on adrenaline, caffeinated beverages, a few hours of sleep, myself with a heavy dose of dry shampoo and a whole lot of love for our Napa County community to get information into the hands of those who needed it the most. Here, that meant turning back the clock and switching to radio. It didn’t always work out the way we wanted, but nothing ever does in an emergency. In local government, we plan for the worst. It’s a never-ending process that requires partnerships at the federal, state and local levels.
But when the worst exceeded our expectations—the fires’ intensity, the speed with which it burned, the scattered locations, the wind—we remained resilient in those times of uncertainty. More than 59,000 acres burned within our county lines, but the fire didn't even come close to burning our spirit. Our hearts hurt. We are forever changed. But one thing remains the same—we are Napa Strong!

Greg Sarris, Tribal Chairman, Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria

The fire was devastating for the entire community, certainly for those who have lost homes and property. A couple things run through my mind. As a Native person, I think of how we managed the land with controlled burning, which destroys the undergrowth that otherwise provides fuel for horrendous fires of the type we just experienced. Property owners and others will have to begin to look for ways to manage and take care of the land, so that we might prevent, or at least lessen, the horrendous fires. The second concern is climate change, which will only exacerbate the problem—all the more reason that we must begin conservative land management practices. That said, I have to look at the reality now. Graton Resort and Casino donated $1 million to the North Bay Fire Relief Fund. We provide rooms in our hotel to any of our 2,000 team members who lost their homes or were evacuated. We fed first responders. On Octover 21, we had a Job Fair and hired nearly 100 people who lost their jobs from businesses that were destroyed by the fire. Yes, future outlook: take care of the land. Present: take care of the people who suffer from the devastation.

Ame & Doug Van Dyke, Owners, E.R. Sawyer

Sonoma County is a place where people work hard, watch out for their neighbors and are beyond generous with their time, skills and fortunes and are resilient! This is a tough blow to us all in many different ways. There are so many stories of devastation, and just as many of people who feel so lucky to have escaped the wrath of the fires and pitched in to help their friends, families, and neighbors, as well as complete strangers. We’ve had so many families, that now have nothing but the clothes on their back, come in to talk to us about their beloved jewelry. They have questions about how to salvage what they can, and move on with the rest, and we are finding that they all have such a strong spirit about them—a resolve to make things right again and an incredible strength! We can all do this together. Family with family, friend with friend, neighbor with neighbor. We are Sonoma County Strong!

Shirlee Zane, Sonoma County Supervisor

Early on October 9 my heart sank to see fire ravaging our beloved County. It was too soon to have numbers, but I knew instinctively that lives would be lost, tragically. It was clear then the magnitude of this disaster was far beyond anything we have ever faced, or anything we could handle on our own. What I know now is that we will forever be changed but I have also learned how quickly and how completely this community can unite. This thought has moved me to tears more times than I can count.
I said on day one, “Disasters are the great unifier.” There are so many stories of courage, survival and hope that have moved me. As the recovery ramps up, it is up to us as elected officials to flex our political muscle to marshal resources so that homes, businesses and lives are rebuilt, fast and better. We must work together to drop those jurisdictional boundaries, to be good teammates and to do our collective work in ways that are respectful, innovative and bold. We have a wellspring of resiliency, goodwill, talent, philanthropy and community spirit here that will carry us through the long journey ahead.



 

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