Over six months after devastating wildfires swept through the North Bay, we caught up with four families from the area. Are they healing? Are they rebuilding? Are they moving on? Here are the stories of the Olsan, Rosen, Rosenthal and Stark families:
The Olsans: keeping busy
Jeremy Olsan has been seeing a therapist to deal with the grief of losing two houses in the North Bay wildfires and the stress of rebuilding.
His son, Jake, is using goats as part of the recovery process.
The Olsans had to flee their hilltop home as wind-whipped flames engulfed their 100-acre property north of Santa Rosa in October. Their house, and the house in which Jeremy’s parents lived, was burned to the ground — along with many of their prized olive trees.
The past six months have brought a never-ending procession of workers to the property, where the Olsans have to provide their own electricity, water and septic system. The wreckage has been removed and arborists have assessed the health of the trees. The rebuilding process could start as early as this summer.
There’s been little time for Jeremy and his wife, Ann DuBay, or for their son to deal with the emotional toll of the fires that killed 44 people and destroyed 8,900 structures in Sonoma and neighboring counties.
“I probably haven’t done as much grieving as I need to, I’m probably not done with it, but the overwhelming need is to be at my job and to get my family back in a house,” Jeremy said while taking a J. reporter on a tour of his property.
Jeremy, a Santa Rosa attorney and the former president of Congregation Shomrei Torah, got enough insurance money to build a house that his family and his parents will share, though “it will be hard for us to rebuild what we had.”
Jake, 24, deals with his grief and anger by working on the property. He used part of his insurance money to buy three goats, who will munch on the grass and weeds that helped fuel last year’s fire.
Jake had lived in his parents’ house since he was a toddler. Since about the time of his bar mitzvah at Shomrei Torah, he has dreamed of farming and gardening the land. Now, he and the goats will help that land recover.
“I do feel grief for this physical space,” he said, taking a break from clearing rocks from the path of a new water pipe.
Jeremy is finally feeling better about the future, now that the site has been cleared and he doesn’t have to see the wreckage “and get reminded of what had burned.”
“I have never been pessimistic. I always knew we could live up here again,” he said. “The question was how soon and how much.”
— Rob Gloster
The Rosens: feeling lucky
Mark Rosen ran for his life last Oct. 9. In the firestorm that swept across Santa Rosa that night, Rosen’s home burned to the ground. He and his wife lost everything.
Today, he says he feels lucky.
Six months after the Tubbs Fire, the Rosens are living in a rented apartment in a retirement community, paid for and furnished by their insurance company. The Oakmont unit is only 10 minutes away from the site where his old home stood in the Rincon Valley neighborhood.
“I’m doing great,” Rosen says. “My wife and I are living together again, and it’s nice to have a house only 10 minutes outside of Santa Rosa.”
In the immediate aftermath of the fire, Rosen, 70, stayed at the home of a nephew while his wife, Carol, stayed with a friend in San Francisco. Rosen says many entities, including the organized Jewish community and the city of Santa Rosa, worked overtime to help displaced families like his.
“The insurance company did everything it could up to the limits,” he said. “The county gave us a fair amount of advice, and we had lots of help at the beginning from town shelters. Everything we encountered went very smoothly.”
But he says there was another side to the coin. It turned out the Rosens did not have as much insurance coverage as they needed, which means the couple came up “a couple of hundred thousand short in coverage.”
They almost purchased a prefab house to erect on the site of their burned home, but learned their subdivision does not permit those kinds of structures.
Now, the Rosen lot, which has been cleared even of its original concrete slab, is on the market, along with scores of other lots in the neighborhood.
How did he cope with the stress of the past six months? “I did something very simple,” he said. “Everything I had been doing.”
That means he continued going to four or five meetings per week of his 12-step program, and made four to five visits per week to his Santa Rosa synagogue, Congregation Beth Ami, to attend Torah study and help with Shabbat service set-up.
“That’s already 10 days a week,” he quips.
Rosen looks back with admiration on the Bay Area Jewish community rallying to help fire victims. He recalls that Jewish Family and Children’s Services “was everywhere for the first several months,” and says Santa Rosa remains abuzz with activity by contractors, inspectors and others trying to heal the city.
As for feeling lucky despite the family losses, Rosen says of himself and his fellow Beth Ami congregants: “Mostly people are upbeat as I was and still am. God has provided. We have an opportunity to start again and recognize we weren’t killed or injured, nor anyone else.”
— Dan Pine
The Rosenthals: forging their faith
The Rosenthals heard the police bullhorn at 3 a.m. that terrible Sunday night. Justin, Shacharit, and three of their four children — the eldest, Daniel, was in his dorm at UC Berkeley — bolted out of bed and jumped in the car.
Minutes later, their home in Santa Rosa’s Fountaingrove neighborhood was engulfed in flames, along with everything they owned. In their haste to escape, they even ran over their sukkah.
The family took shelter with friends and family in the East Bay, couch-surfing for a couple of months until moving into a rental home in Piedmont — fully furnished, as they literally had nothing.
Well, not nothing — they had each other. And that, they point out, is what matters.
“It’s amazing how little you really need,” Shacharit said this week, speaking to J. with Justin and two of the children, Ari, 18, and Moriah, 16. (Ari’s twin brother Elias was at baseball practice.)
Considering how their lives were upended, it’s amazing how optimistic and cheerful they are. They call it “looking at the silver lining,” and they remind each other of that every day.
“Talk about silver linings, we can walk to synagogue now,” said Moriah, referring to Beth Jacob Congregation in Oakland, where they have been members for years, along with synagogues in Santa Rosa. “We lost our home, but now we’re at a Jewish school,” she added — she, Ari and Elias have enrolled at Jewish Community High School in San Francisco, which she prefers to their public school in Santa Rosa.
“We’re so blessed to be alive,” Shacharit chimed in. “So much goodness has come out of this tragedy — the kids are thriving at school, we reunited with our old community at Beth Jacob, everyone has opened their homes and their hearts and wallets to us. It’s ‘what do you need, take this,’ giving us clothing, books, inviting us every Shabbat.”
The family lost all of their photos in the fire. But friends and relatives pitched in, sending the Rosenthals whatever they had, including wedding pictures and snapshots of the kids when they were young.
Above all, they say, the Jewish community has been amazing. Not only their friends at Beth Jacob, but the Santa Rosa office of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation sent a Shabbat basket the first week after the fire, followed by one from Congregation Beth Ami, where they also belong. The Chabad rabbi in Sonoma County calls regularly.
Ari and Moriah are active in NCSY, the national Orthodox youth group, and the local branch held a fundraiser to buy tefillin for Ari, along with Jewish books to replenish those he lost. He received a $5,000 scholarship from Federation to attend yeshiva in Jerusalem next year, as a precursor to entering rabbinical school at Yeshiva University; NCSY gave Moriah a similar scholarship toward a summer program in Israel.
This outpouring of love only strengthened Ari’s decision to become a rabbi. “Seeing the support we got reinforces my desire to give back to my community,” he said. “The fire enabled our family to come together around Jewish values. It really reinvigorated our Jewish life.”
There are still many pieces to pick up. Justin’s parents, in their 90s, finally were able to move back into their retirement residence, which was badly damaged. But his mother, who suffered a heart attack from smoke inhalation, remains in poor health, and both are badly shaken.
In addition to caring for them, Justin is still looking for work in his field of hospital administration. Shacharit recently found work as a clerk with the city of Hayward. They don’t know whether they’ll rebuild their home, or even return to Santa Rosa. The water supply is contaminated in their neighborhood, Justin reports, and there’s no word on when it will be safe again.
But they’re together, and moving forward. “Forgive the pun, but the fire ‘forged’ our faith,” said Justin. “We have always given tzedakah, and that’s what we teach our children, to give what you can. It was hard, but heartwarming, to be the recipients.”
Moriah recalls how frightened she was the night of the fire, when they were unable to get to Justin’s parents and had no idea how they’d fared. When the family finally was united, Moriah hugged her grandparents as hard as she could.
“I’ll never take them for granted, that’s for sure,” she said. “Life isn’t safe. You never know when it’s your last day. We learn that during Sukkot, when we literally point to our ‘home’ and know it’s just temporary.
“The only lasting protection comes from God.”
— Sue Fishkoff
The Starks: rebuilding a business
When Mark and Terri Stark lost one of their beloved Santa Rosa restaurants in last October’s devastating Tubbs Fire, they immediately responded to the crisis in the way they knew best: by feeding people.
With their popular Willi’s Wine Bar burned to the ground, and their own home full of evacuated friends, they opened their other five Sonoma County restaurants as soon as they could and fed first responders and those who had been evacuated.
Terri, who was raised Jewish in San Mateo, and Mark, originally from Maryland, own Bird & The Bottle, Monti’s, and Stark’s Steak and Seafood in Santa Rosa, and Willi’s Seafood & Raw Bar and Bravas Bar de Tapas in Healdsburg.
Had the fires not happened, the couple would have kept things as they were. According to Terri, “we were happy with the six that we had.” But losing Willi’s Wine Bar, their first restaurant, was a tremendous blow.
“Willi’s is what we built our whole company on and is what launched us,” she said. “It was our baby and our second home.”
Most of the 52 employees had been there over a decade, and Terri was determined to find jobs for them at one of the other restaurants.
Feeding people and relocating the staff gave the Starks a sense of normalcy, she said, as they went through the traditional stages of grief over losing Willi’s.
Stark says they had accepted there would be no rebuilding Willi’s on the site, as they felt they couldn’t duplicate the atmosphere of the funky 1880s roadhouse that had burned down. But then the mail started pouring in: letters and checks from around the country mourning the loss with them, and asking them to rebuild.
Even though they thought they couldn’t picture Willi’s anywhere else, by January they had found a new location in Santa Rosa. They hope to reopen on Oct. 9, the anniversary of the fire.
And since they’re opening one, they figured why not two while they’re at it. “We’re gluttons for punishment,” she laughs.
They had long thought about a New York-style Jewish deli concept. Mark has been perfecting his pastrami technique, with traditional beef, lamb and pork, “which is probably inappropriate,” Terri chuckles, while reporting that “everyone loved it.”
They’ll make their own challah, rye bread and bagels, according to KQED.
While she can’t announce the exact Santa Rosa location yet, she is hoping that Grossman’s Jew-ish Noshery will open sometime after the launch of the new Willi’s.
Terri’s maiden name is Gross — originally shortened from Grossman — and she specified Jew-ish because no doubt bacon and other nontraditional items found at a deli will be on the menu in addition to the Jewish fare.
“We want to keep it broader so we don’t get into trouble,” she said.
— Alix Wall