Birgit Sacher, member of Santa Rosa's Congregation Shomrei Torah, comforts Nicholas and Zoe Miller who lost their home to the fires, Oct. 11, 2017. (Photo/Norm Levin)
Birgit Sacher, member of Santa Rosa's Congregation Shomrei Torah, comforts Nicholas and Zoe Miller who lost their home to the fires, Oct. 11, 2017. (Photo/Norm Levin)

North Bay fires, one year later: scars, thanks and lives uprooted

“Dear Camp.”

So began Emma Silver’s online tribute on Oct. 9, 2018, one year after the Tubbs Fire destroyed Camp Newman in Santa Rosa and many other areas in Napa, Sonoma and Lake counties.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about you today as it’s the one-year anniversary of the destruction of the physical you,” wrote Silver, who attended the Union for Reform Judaism summer camp four times as a youth and three times as a staffer. She’s now an executive assistant at URJ headquarters in New York.

“It’s still very much a surreal experience,” she continued, “trying to tangibly understand that Porter Creek as we all knew you is not what you are anymore … Place is important, but even more important than that are the people that make a place. Thank you for bringing some of the best people into my world and for molding me into who I am.”

Silver’s profound message was representative of how most people feel about the loss of this Bay Area institution, as well as the loss of other communities and neighborhoods ravaged by the fires in October 2017. In the days, weeks and months following the tragedy, the 71-year-old camp received many similar messages — an outpouring of love, said Ruben Arquilevich, Camp Newman’s executive director.

“The messages I was seeing from parents, alumni, staff and faculty going back decades …” he said, his voice trailing off as he gained control of his emotions. “It was not just my loss and my children’s loss, but a loss for thousands who called camp their home, made them who they are as human beings, and where they formed their love of Judaism.”

The fire claimed 80 of the 90 buildings on the 485 acres of Camp Newman’s Porter Creek Road property.

a shot from above of one building still standing and new green growth
URJ Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, one year after the summer camp was largely destroyed by fire (Photo/Courtesy URJ Camp Newman

But as quantifiable as the fire damage was overall — 22 deaths, more than 5,600 structures destroyed (including 2,800 homes), 36,000 acres of land burned, $8 million to fix the contaminated water system — much of it is not: losses of friendships and precious heirlooms, time spent arguing with insurance companies, the emotional weight that continues to burden so many.

“I never really understood Job’s comforters,” said Rabbi Mordecai Miller of Congregation Beth Ami in Santa Rosa, referring to the biblical figure of Job. A “Job comforter” is someone who, in trying to offer help or advice, in reality adds to a person’s distress. “This experience taught me the meaning of that expression. When people say, ‘Remember, it’s just things,’ that is not a comfort to those who lost everything. It is not a comfort to say we need to be better prepared. These arguments are true, but are of no emotional value. They are irrelevant.”

Beth Ami congregant Nancy Fleming understands. She and her husband, Andy, were on a train in Croatia when they learned of the fires.

“Everything is gone,” Nancy said recently. “You can’t get it unless it happens to you. People say, ‘It’s just stuff.’ That ‘stuff’ was our home, a lifetime of memories.”

Jake Olsan surveys the scant remains of his family's home in rural Sonoma County. (Photo/Courtesy Jeremy Olsan)
Jake Olsan surveys the scant remains of his family’s home in rural Sonoma County, Oct. 2017 (Photo/Courtesy Jeremy Olsan)

After being told by neighbors “don’t bother coming home,” because the 120 homes in their neighborhood had burned to the ground, they moved into a 900-square-foot apartment in downtown Santa Rosa. They continue to live there while they rebuild on their property, where the only item that survived was a box with Andy’s wedding ring, what he now calls “a symbolic metaphor for hope and perseverance.”

Instead of rationalizing the tragedy in which thousands of people like the Flemings lost their homes, Miller has suggested that people listen to each other with empathy, offer specific help and take actions that truly bring comfort.

“Things,” Miller said, quoting what Rabbi George Gittleman of Congregation Shomrei Torah in Santa Rosa told him, “represent memories and are connections to important people.”

Empathy is what led Diana Klein, director of Jewish Family and Children’s Services in Sonoma County, to decide against collecting clothes as a first response to the fires. She knew that people would want to choose their own belongings. Therefore, she instead requested and received thousands of dollars of gift cards in food, gas and hotels.

The needs today, though different, are still ongoing. Klein took one recent call from a community member whose insurance money has been paying for a rented home. When the money runs out in December, the family faces homelessness. They are likely not alone.

“When FEMA disappears in April, then what?” Klein asked. “That will be the second level of this disaster.”

Coupled with personal losses are the losses of businesses, workers, professionals and entire neighborhoods, some of which have not had power completely restored.

“This is an entire community with PTSD,” Klein stated.

Rabbi Stephanie Kramer, associate rabbi at Shomrei Torah, said there’s a member of her synagogue who now needs an additional $1.2 million above the settlement amount he originally received due to increased construction costs and trade tariffs on products.

“What gets him out of bed every morning is arguing with the insurance company,” she said.

(From right) Kol Shofar Rabbi Chai Levy and Shomrei Torah Rabbis Stephanie Kramer and George Gittleman serve food to Carol Spear (turquoise shirt), who lost her Santa Rosa home in the fire, at Congregation Shomrei Torah in Santa Rosa, Oct. 11. (Photo/Norm Levin)
(From right) Kol Shofar Rabbi Chai Levy and Shomrei Torah Rabbis Stephanie Kramer and George Gittleman serve food to Carol Spear (turquoise shirt), who lost her Santa Rosa home in the fire, at Congregation Shomrei Torah in Santa Rosa, Oct. 11. (Photo/Norm Levin)

This is part of the daily emotional aftermath that remains above but also right below the surface. Weather forecasts that call for high winds are a significant trigger as are smells from fireplaces. Kids have returned to school without old friends whose families were forced to move.

Moriah Rosenthal is part of one such family. Last October, the 17-year-old had one day to say goodbye to friends and teachers before she, her parents and her three brothers moved to Piedmont after their home was lost. While she has been able to keep up with friends, the high schooler feels the loss of not having her confidants nearby, adding, “Because I moved away, we’re not as relatable.”

While Moriah’s mother, Shacharit, feels blessed to have escaped physical harm, she still thinks every day (and many nights) about what happened — often awakening, for example, at 3:30 a.m. to make sure the house isn’t on fire. “Life goes on, but it is changed forever,” she said. “There’s life before the fire and life after the fire.”

Her husband, Justin, shared a story about his new next-door neighbors who were planning a barbecue: “They came by and said, ‘We want to let you know you will smell smoke. We want to put you at ease.’”

(From left) Moriah, Shacharit, Justin and Ari Rosenthal in their Piedmont rental with replacement family photos donated by friends, April 2018. (Photo/Sue Fishkoff)
(From left) Moriah, Shacharit, Justin and Ari Rosenthal in their Piedmont rental with replacement family photos donated by friends, April 2018. (Photo/Sue Fishkoff)

Taking a glass-half-full approach to his current circumstances, 69-year-old Andy Fleming described how living in a Santa Rosa apartment complex down the hall from their best friends is like living in a college dorm. And while his wife, Nancy, points out that she is not the optimist her husband is, she at least is looking toward the future. The couple is designing a new home, one that will be surrounded by glass, allowing light and color to shine through.

While Camp Newman’s financial loss still has not been fully assessed, a task force, under the leadership of board chair Michelle Tandowsky, is guiding the “reimagining” of the camp, which has been in Santa Rosa since 1997. A year-round community center will be part of the plan. Tandowsky and Rabbi Doug Kahn, former executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, head the 25-member task force, which is three months in to what they expect will be a yearlong process.

“The total destruction is traumatic and we are all still dealing with it,” Tandowsky explained. “At the same time, we are a blank canvas. We are reimagining the physical space so we can provide the best immersive experience to people year-round.”

Through it all — the loss of life and property, the rebuilding, the relocations, the replacement of everyday items — there is also gratitude.

“I have learned how little you need in life to get by,” Shacharit said. “We got out with what mattered — our children. We also gained more than we lost: love, kindness, generosity and community.”

Newman’s summer camp director, Rabbi Allie Fischman, related how the camp remained open for business this past summer, albeit at Cal State University Maritime Academy in Vallejo. She said it was “everything we could have hoped for.”

While the camp held a commemoration to mark the one-year anniversary of the disaster, its leadership is looking forward. “This will forever be part of who we are,” Fischman noted, “but there is also gratitude, because the community is strong and resilient.”

Silver perhaps said it best in her letter with three simple words — words weighted with meaning a year after the fire, but also direct in their message of appreciation for people in the Bay Area, around the country and beyond who have shown their support: “With love, Emma.”

Elissa Einhorn
Elissa Einhorn

Elissa Einhorn began her writing career in the Bronx at the age of 8. She earned a master’s degree in communications and journalism 20 years later. While Elissa worked for non-profits her entire career, including as a Jewish communal professional, she now enjoys working for herself as a freelance writer. Still, her most treasured role is that of ima (mom) to twin daughters who she is (finally) happy to count among her friends.