Thanksgiving in Wildfire Country: ‘We Don’t Know What We Are Going to Do’
Residents of the wildfire-ravaged community come together to celebrate the holiday.
Tere Bigon, 69, isn’t sure how she is going to cope this Thanksgiving.
For years, Bigon has cooked a big holiday meal at her apartment in Santa Rosa in Northern California for her four children and three grandchildren.
But Bigon’s apartment burned up in the fires that swept through wine country in early October. Now she is living in a hotel in another city with her 12-year-old grandson. Her son Justin, 37, an Iraq veteran who lived in the same apartment complex, has moved to Southern California with his two children. Bigon’s other children cannot host a feast.
“This year we don’t know what we are going to do,” said Bigon. “This is the first year we’ve all been separated. I am terribly sad. We have always come together at Thanksgiving. The holidays are special.”
Bigon is among the thousands of people whose holiday rituals have been upended because of the fires that burned for three weeks, killing 43 people, scorching 110,720 acres, destroying almost 7,000 structures, and causing more than $3 billion in damage. Homes that once were decorated annually with lights and pumpkins are now piles of ash and metal. People who used to live close to one another have now fanned out across the Bay Area—or even further—to find housing. Some are still so shocked that they can’t begin to think about the holidays.
“I think people are so traumatized that Thanksgiving is… not what they are concerned about,” said Elizabeth Anderson, whose house in The Orchard, a Santa Rosa development for people 55-years and older, survived, while 82 other homes did not. She runs a Facebook group for the complex and people have been weighing in with their feelings. “This is an elderly population with high anxiety. The thought of rebuilding and restocking and buying furniture and towels is overwhelming for people who are in their eighties and nineties. They wonder, ‘How long will I be homeless? When can I know if insurance will pay to rebuild my house? Can I afford to live here anymore?’ Those are the questions people have.”
The fires were so large, burned for so long (the last flames took three weeks to extinguish) and impacted so many that they became a communal experience, in many ways. That’s one reason Bigon is considering volunteering at a community Thanksgiving dinner. She wants to give back.
“Everyone in Sonoma County is traumatized at some level,” said Arthur Dawson, who escaped from his home on Warm Springs Road in Glen Ellen with his wife and 17-year-old son. Their home burned to the ground, but the community has rallied around them. Some neighbors they did not even know well bought a trailer for them and set it up on their land. Dawson will be in Portland celebrating Thanksgiving at his daughter’s house, but he said it would be a time of thanks.
“It’s incredible,” said Dawson. “The community has been absolutely amazing. Humbling generous. This experience has been this combination of grief and gratitude. People showered us with money, a place to live, and offers of help.”
Organizations that host Thanksgiving meals every year are expecting larger than normal crowds because of the fires. The Sonoma Community Center has moved its holiday meal into the large Veteran’s Hall in Sonoma and organizers are expecting to feed as many as 600 people this year, up from 400 last year, according to John Gurney, the executive director. It is the chance to come together after the tragedy that is luring so many, he said.
“We have an expectation that we are going to see more people but it’s not necessarily because they are hungry and have no food but because it’s an opportunity to get together with others and to share experiences,” said Gurney. “It’s more about community building than anything.”
Not all efforts to find holiday meals for those displaced have been successful. Eric Elting, his wife, Lisa Corrigan Elting, and their four children were moved by the stories they saw on television about people who lost their homes. They decided to create a website that would match holiday hosts with those looking for a place to celebrate Thanksgiving. More than 300 people signed up to be hosts, said Elting, an indication of just how much people want to help. But despite extensive outreach—emails to churches, leafleting, and posts on Facebook and Nextdoor, “not a single person has come to the site to request a meal,” he said.
“On one hand we were disappointed,” said Elting. “On other hand, it’s a great thing because it means people have a place to go.”
They recently emailed the prospective hosts to tell them they would not be getting any guests.
Pauline Block had hoped to celebrate Thanksgiving in the house she and her husband moved into in February. But that expectation was dashed early in the morning of Oct. 9 when Block fled her home near the Coffey Park subdivision in Santa Rosa barefoot, wearing only her pajamas and carrying her 1-year-old daughter. Her home was completely burned. The only thing that survived was a small statue of a weeping angel, which “gave us hope that everything would be OK.”
Now Block plans to go to a friend’s house a few miles north in the town of Windsor. One of the other guests will be Lisa Mattson, whose house in the Fountaingrove area of Santa Rosa was badly damaged but not completely destroyed. Mattson and her husband had planned to travel to the Caribbean for the holiday, but canceled those plans, both because they were underinsured and spending the money on a vacation seemed short-sighted and because they wanted to be with the community that has rallied to their side. Both women draw comfort in knowing they will spend the holiday with others who are coping with loss.
“We’re doing more of a ‘friend giving’ kind of thing,” said Block. “That’s been part of the healing process—getting together with people who have been affected.”