At an empty lot in the former fire zone, new green growth mixes with charred remains of trees. (Photo/Rob Gloster)
At an empty lot in the former fire zone, new green growth mixes with charred remains of trees. (Photo/Rob Gloster)

‘People are still suffering’: the North Bay fires, six months later

Rabbi Stephanie Kramer is tired.

It’s been a long, heavy six months. For the Houston native who lived through Hurricane Katrina, floods and hurricanes were part of the fabric of existence in the South. But living in California and experiencing the firestorm that swept through four North Bay counties the week of Oct. 8, 2017, incited a new kind of fear.

“For me, fire was so much scarier,” she said. “Driving through an area that’s been devastated by fire is just like nothing before, and the way the fire broke out in the middle of the night and as rapidly as it escalated and as little information we received. … The trauma of those first two nights is unlike anything I’ve lived through.”

Yet one wouldn’t know Kramer was shaken at all judging by her steady leadership during the initial crisis, and in the six months since.

The associate rabbi at Congregation Shomrei Torah, Kramer was thrust into emergency response the morning of Oct. 9 when congregants began seeking shelter from the fires at the Santa Rosa synagogue. She’s been in this mode ever since, planning community events to help with the coping and healing process, coordinating and dispensing aid, serving meals, providing counsel. Through the fatigue she persists, as does her congregation — 34 member-families lost their homes and about 80 percent were evacuated during the fire. Five families have moved away.

“I think we realized after the initial month that it was going to be a marathon,” Kramer said. “There’s no day I can get everything done I’d like to get done. I think being able to delegate and lean on the amazing volunteers and community members is really important, and I’m trying to take time for myself when I can.”

Stephanie Levin, director of programs at the Peninsula Jewish Community Center, and Rabbi Stephanie Kramer of Congregation Shomrei Torah with Judaica Gift Baskets for fire victims, Dec. 2017 (Photo/Caroline Poland)
Stephanie Levin, director of programs at the Peninsula Jewish Community Center, and Rabbi Stephanie Kramer of Congregation Shomrei Torah with Judaica Gift Baskets for fire victims, Dec. 2017 (Photo/Caroline Poland)

Shomrei Torah continues to serve as a refuge, a place where the community can come together to heal, to share stories and, especially, to laugh. After a day of healing in December called ReJEWvenate, the congregation hosted a series of paint nights called “Heal, Paint, Nosh,” sponsored a forum focused on emotional healing, put up a Judaica shuk for families to rebuild their ritual items lost in the fire, and staged a comedy night.

“We’ve realized people need to laugh,” said Kramer. “We’re planning on bringing in more artists-in-residence for comedy and [theater]. Any time people can take a moment to laugh is a really good moment.”

Shomrei Torah is not acting alone. Congregations Ner Shalom and Beth Ami, Jewish Family and Children’s Services, the Jewish Community Free Clinic and the JCC of Sonoma County are all offering ongoing support, counseling and activities. The Jewish Federations in San Francisco and the East Bay together raised more than $1.1 million for wildfire recovery efforts.

“We’ve taken care of our people very well,” said Carol Appel, Jewish concierge for Sonoma County, a program of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. “The immediate response was swift and comprehensive. We had about 55 families who lost homes in the Jewish community. Those families have been embraced and as well taken care of as they possibly could.

“Some of those families are planning ahead. Some have moved out of the county. There have been secondary traumas, deaths since then. People have moved to Southern California and are struggling there. Trauma, for many, is just setting in now. … Others have proved more resilient and are just moving forward. It varies individually from person to person.”

Since the fire, Appel said, community groups have banded together to form coalitions. Jewish organizations have joined with secular and Christian groups to offer aid and support. Many Jewish groups are part of the countywide Rebuilding Our Community, which is focused on long-term recovery from the fire.

Kids work on a project at the "ReJEWvenate" event in Santa Rosa, Dec. 3 (Photo/Shoshana Hebshi)
Kids work on a project at the “ReJEWvenate” event in Santa Rosa, Dec. 3 (Photo/Shoshana Hebshi)

“People are still suffering from this disaster,” Appel said, “and it’s going to take years until we really come out of it.”

Reb Irwin Keller of Ner Shalom said the trauma sticks with his congregants, who flocked to the shul in downtown Cotati the night of the fires.

“I think the experience of sheltering in the building, sleeping 40, entertaining children, feeding people, housing dogs and cats, finding services, and chanting and praying, too –– all this became part of how we hold this building and this community,” he said. “I can’t speak for others, but I know I now enter our timeworn building with a new level of reverence. These walls still hold the intensity of that first night of tears and terror, that first week of smoke and sadness and displacement. And not just these walls; our hearts still hold all of that, too.”

The call for ongoing help has been met with a generous outpouring of support from the local Jewish community, as well as from Jews across the country. Donations of gift cards and cash, Judaica, clothing, food and volunteer time have helped people get back on their feet. Fundraising initiatives have helped synagogues and Jewish agencies pay for staff, expand existing services and offer more assistance where needed.

“The Jewish community, considering its size, always goes above and beyond,” said JCC director Ellen Blustein. “We are an extremely resilient community.”

Many in the general community who were less comfortably situated have been harder hit in the aftermath of the fire. JFCS and the Jewish Community Free Clinic in Santa Rosa already work with a poorer population and have seen an uptick in demand.

Blackened debris can still be seen all over the fire zone. (Photo/Rob Gloster)
Blackened debris can still be seen all over the fire zone. (Photo/Rob Gloster)

JFCS has hired two new case managers to help with the increased need and is working with other organizations to share the caseload. And while the agency is continuing to do what it has always done, offering counseling and financial assistance, it is with the understanding that the fire recovery work is still in its infancy.

“There’s a new normal, but no one is really back to their normal life yet,” said JFCS Sonoma County regional director Diana Klein. “For people who are not insured or adequately insured, this is going to go on for a couple of years.”

Alissa Hirschfeld-Flores, a marriage and family therapist in Santa Rosa, worked with JFCS and Shomrei Torah to organize a March 24 “After the Fire” forum to address the emotional impact of the fires on the community. She has seen in her private practice how the emotional trauma of this event is still very present.

“I know how widespread the impact is on the whole community,” she said. “Especially for people who have lost houses or loved ones, but also for a lot of other people … with prior history of trauma where this has triggered all kinds of things. This is a long process of healing. Grief and trauma just don’t get resolved in a couple of months.”

The fires, which hit parts of Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties, destroyed or damaged thousands of structures and took 44 lives.

Seeing a 35 percent increase in its traffic and a need for emotional support among its patients, the Jewish Community Free Clinic is preparing to launch a mental health program. Funded in part by the Federation, it will provide individual, solution-focused therapy sessions that are totally free. Clinic executive director Donna Waldman said she’s actively recruiting therapists and social workers for these volunteer positions and hopes the program will be up and running by June.

Reb Irwin Keller leads Hebrew songs of healing at Bnai Israel Jewish Center in Petaluma, Oct. 11, 2017 (Photo/Liz Harris)
Reb Irwin Keller leads Hebrew songs of healing at Bnai Israel Jewish Center in Petaluma, Oct. 11, 2017 (Photo/Liz Harris)

“There’s no doubt in my mind that the at-risk population is in a much more precarious time than ever,” she said. “It’s the fire, it’s the shortage of housing, it’s the loss of certain occupations.”

Blustein believes people want to be together right now, and she sees the JCC as a natural facilitator. The center recently hosted a fire program with a park ranger and county Supervisor Susan Gorin, who lost her home. The JCC is also planning a therapy day in collaboration with JFCS, and is partnering with local oral history group Listening for a Change to produce a wildfire video project featuring stories by people who lost their homes.

Despite the progress being made, Rabbi Kramer is aware that fatigue and grief are factors in the community’s efforts to rebuild and heal.

“Everybody wishes they had a magic wand and had a time capsule and go back or shoot a few years into the future. For people who lost their homes, it’s a daily struggle,” she said. “For everybody else, for all of us who live in this city, it’s still real and hard and taxing. We’re at that stage of grief where we want it to just be over.”

Nevertheless, the community is moving forward. Shomrei Torah, Beth Ami, Ner Shalom, JFCS and the JCC are working together to plan a commemoration one year after the fire. The event will coincide with Sukkot and recognize what the community has endured. “It’s really restorative to help people come together and look at how far they’ve come,” said JFCS’ Klein.

Hirschfeld-Flores sees a resilient community that continues to care for one another. “There’s a sense of the kind of palpable love and support that we felt in the Jewish community right afterward, that’s still there,” she said. “It may be a little less intense than it was initially, but there’s still a sense that we want to be there for each other.”

Shoshana Hebshi
Shoshana Hebshi

Shoshana Hebshi is a freelance writer and former J. copy editor living in the North Bay.