The Aftermath of the Sonoma Wildfires - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Aftermath of the Sonoma Wildfires

By James Watkins & Olivia Miltner


Because the tragedy doesn’t end when the news cycle moves on.

When the Northern California October 2017 firestorm devastated large parts of OZY’s home state, including the Tubbs Fire largely in Sonoma County that became the most destructive wildfire in California history, we traveled up a week after the flames were out. To? To speak to those affected and look to whatever futures they might be able to scratch together.

Below are some of their stories from across the community spectrum: a charity worker with the Salvation Army; a resident of Santa Rosa whose house was among nearly 3,000 destroyed in the city; a labor organizer who is raising funds to help undocumented victims of the fire; and a Napa winemaker (click to skip to each section). 

Phillip Powers

The Salvation Army

We’ve been here a week, and we’ve got one more week to go. We took the disaster training, and so that’s what we do — come out and serve.

We were at the local assistance center. We were handing out hundred-dollar gift cards and just talking to people. Usually they didn’t care about the card as much as they just wanted to talk. And then the last three or four days we’ve been driving around here in Mark West, providing snacks and shuttles. There’s a lot of places that you can’t even see or find, and we’re trying to get to those people and let them know they’re not forgotten. They feel like that a lot of times.

We’ve been yelled at, cursed at, cried on, hugged — and not at us really; it’s just what they’re going through, and that’s just their process. Sometimes they just need to let it off. It’s better than their spouse or kids, you know? Some have that strength about them right now, but in a week or so, they’ll begin processing. Or their spouse was falling apart at first and now they’re falling apart. Some of them have kids and they don’t feel like they can fall apart, so then when we’re there and their kids aren’t around, they just open up.

They have a great attitude about it. It is what it is. You find out what you’re made of.

We were talking to a lady up on the hill, and we pull up and talked to her for just a couple minutes and she said, “You were sent by God.” And she just started bawling and weeping and telling everything that she’s gone through, all the emotions and the trials in her life. It was like she needed that moment. She felt comfortable, in a safe place that she could just let go. And then after about an hour she was fine, her sister and brother-in-law showed up, and she’s strong again, and so maybe she felt safe to be vulnerable. 

A guy right here at that corner, his parents bought that house a month or two before he was born, and he’s 52 years old. That’s all he’s ever known. He just is processing, “Now what do I do? Do I want to stay here?” And that’s what a lot people are trying to figure out.

They have a great attitude about it. It is what it is. You find out what you’re made of. You really do. This is really a cool neighborhood here, very invested in each other and their community, so I think they’ll be fine in the long run. We’re resilient. You see it all over. We’re strong. Sonoma strong. We’re tough.

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In October, the California EPA had over 100 staff working to clear the affected areas of hazardous material.

Source Sean Culligan/OZY

Greg Soiland

Santa Rosa resident

This is my beautiful house. We got out of here about midnight — it was literally 20 minutes behind us.

We came about 9 o’clock the next day to see and they had the road blocked so we had to sneak in, but we made it. It was a good thing we did because we had a neighbor down here on the road. … He’d spent the night out there and he was all burned. We had to go get help. Saved his life. He said he got out of the shower and his house was on fire.

We took the motor home and my work truck and our pickup. That white pickup right there. We couldn’t do anything. The whole town was in chaos. You couldn’t see. Everything was on fire. Everybody’s running — they’re running from one spot to the next because everything was burning and jumping. It was pretty sad.

This was the license plate off my other pickup, “Fourdoor.” This truck was a great truck too. It was a Ford, but we still liked it.

I’ve got my wife watching me and my son watching, plus the rest of my kids. I’ve got to keep a positive attitude.

We went over to my sister-in-law’s and we’ve been hanging there. It’s been fine ever since, and I got all the hookups and everything for the motor home. It’s not perfect and my dad, he doesn’t get around much. He just kinda goes from the couch to the toilet and back and forth, and that’s his whole day. It’s not going to work long term. It’s hard to do much else.

You can’t roll over and you can’t give up. I’ve got my wife watching me and my son watching, plus the rest of my kids. I’ve got to keep a positive attitude. Plus my dad — my dad lost four homes and a bunch of antique cars, and he bought most of that stuff himself. And he’s almost 90, so it’s not like he can do much about it. So I’ve just got to stay positive, keep him motivated.

Hopefully we’ll put her back together, but we’ll see. What a mess. It all depends how much we get from the insurance company. We’ve got to pay off the loan so we’ll own the property outright, and I don’t know if we’ll have enough money going forward to rebuild. But all of our kids are gone except Jason — now he’s the only one still at home, so we don’t need a huge house. We could make something a little more modest.

Look at how fast the green stuff starts growing. 

Christy Lubin

Founder and steering committee member, UndocuFund

My day has been really, really busy. I’m coordinating some conversations around how are we going to train hundreds, if not thousands, of immigrant workers in occupational health and safety, and in the OSHA requirements for working in the construction industry. When we look at Hurricane Harvey or Miami or Sandy or New Orleans, day laborers are the second responders. The fire’s out, the initial emergency is over, and then the immigrant workers go in and do the cleanup. Here, the first stage of cleanup is being done by the Cal EPA, and then there’s a second stage that the Army Corps of Engineers will oversee, because all those homes have to have their foundations dug out. Then by February or March construction will start. Whether immigrant or nonimmigrant, undocumented or citizen, we want to make sure that every person in Sonoma County who wants the job can do the job and gets the job. 

But day laborers and immigrant construction workers have one of the highest accident and death rates in the construction industry. Often they are hired by unscrupulous labor contractors who pay them minimum wage and send them in without personal protective equipment or training. We don’t want to see that happen here.

We really don’t know how many undocumented people lost their homes or lost their jobs. The grape harvest had just happened, and a lot of people make their big chunk of money then. A lot of undocumented people might not have bank accounts and they might keep their cash in their homes. Nobody’s talking about that part of the economic loss. There’s not a lot of work [in the vineyards] even into February, so that money usually holds you over into fall and early winter.

Initially we were urging people to sign up for FEMA because if you have any U.S.-born people in your household, they are eligible for benefits. Unfortunately, on the application for FEMA, you have to list every person in your household. We were never able to get any assurance that that information would not be shared with ICE. So a lot of people stayed away. Three days into the fire I was talking with some friends, and we said we should set up our own fund that only undocumented people can access called the UndocuFund. The next morning we went to the bank and opened an account. Within a week it had a few hundred thousand dollars in it. It’s almost at $2 million now. 


This is a community that was already displaced. There’s the displacement when you have to leave your town in rural Mexico because of violence or economic challenges. Then you get to the border, then you get to a town and you’ve got to move to another town, or you get here and you’re homeless. Then there’s the housing crisis in Sonoma County. Before the fires we had just a 2 percent vacancy rate; now it’s at 1 percent or 0 percent. Rents went up 36 percent the first week. It’s out of control.

You have some people who lost everything — house, job, possessions. Then you have people who lost their house and their possessions but still have a job. And then you have people who lost their job but still have their house, and still had to pay rent even when they were evacuated. Our fund will help with rent deposits, lost wages and other bills. We hope to help at least 500 families, but we have no idea. It’s going to be a very challenging winter for folks.

Peter Heitz

Winemaker, Turnbull Wine Cellars, Napa Valley

We had only 5.6 tons of fruit that we hadn’t picked yet when the fires started. It’s a super big story in the news about how the vintage is somehow heavily damaged, but 99 percent of grapes had already been picked. The heavy damage is actually in those neighborhoods with people fleeing for their lives and losing everything they had, and some losing their lives. The story of the vintage is secondary at best, and probably 10 steps down the ladder.

I had my picking team slated to come pick the last grapes Monday morning and the fires started Sunday night at about 10.30 p.m. So we couldn’t pick them and the fruit hung in the smoky air for 10 days. Our crop insurance wouldn’t have covered the damage, so I was advised that we should pick the grapes, make wine that’s smoky and then the economic loss of having a defective batch of wine would be covered. In the end it turns out it wasn’t covered after all, but Napa Valley wineries are relatively well-heeled. It’s a very small percentage of our production. We’ll take a loss on it, maybe a $40,000 hit. That’s not that big a deal.

A lot of people in the community have some post-traumatic stress; they’re uneasy that it could come back.

I was evacuated for a week with my two children, wife and dog, and we didn’t know if we’d return to a home. We came down to the winery and literally crashed here. We were still making wine, and you have to pay attention to the grapes or you’ll miss the vintage moment. So we hunkered down in the cellar and continued working. It sounds ludicrous now, but at night I would set an alarm for every hour and would get out and make sure the fire was still far enough away. I think a lot of people in the community have some post-traumatic stress; they’re uneasy that it could come back. It was very stressful. It’s a bit embarrassing, but for the next week after the fire was out, I would still wake up every hour. And there’s gotta be 10,000 people who had more intense experiences than I had.

Napa is the sexy story because we’re the better-known entity globally, but the real tragedy is Sonoma. The good news is Napa is rallying funds and people and resources for Sonoma. Historically there’s been a bit of a divide along the mountain range that burned, like a hometown rivalry, so it’s nice to see people put all that aside.

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