#coffeystrong

Wildfire Anniversary

I think it’s best to start at the end of this extraordinary week of events commemorating the wildfires of Sonoma County last October that earned the designation of the the most destructive wildfire in California history.

For me the last event, Tuesday night the 9th at Coffey Park, where about 500 people gathered in the dark was such a tangible expression of solidarity, hope and love that I was swept away in it. Especially when the President of Coffey Strong, Pamela Van Halsema said, “We’re going to sit on these front porches we’re building and we’re going to greet each other by name, because we know each other now and we can call each other friend.” I actually caught myself feeling jealous that these families, who had lost so much, but actually had gained something that few neighborhood groups can claim.

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It was of course too dark for me to sketch, so I did this one from a picture I took. Almost half of the 1,321 homes that were lost that night last October are being rebuilt now, many completed or almost, making the neighborhood an active construction site.

There were moments of silent prayer for the five neighbors who lost their lives in the fire that night. Poems were read and music played to lead the crowd through memories to hope. Even in the dark I ran into a couple of the people whom I had sketched and once again felt that connection of love and hope.

Back to the earlier events: Last weekend began at Shiloh Park with an event sponsored by the Parks and Rec. Dept., Wildfire Anniversary Event: Community Healing Together. Twelve sketchers showed up to help capture Fire Stories. We had a sign and binder of fire sketches and badges so that people would know who we were.

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The opening ceremony took place under the oaks where Aztec Dancers and drummers did a healing ceremony and dances calling on Mother Earth, bowing to the four directions, and even involving the audience to join in a spiral dance.

AztecDancers Some of the sketchers captured the life and color of the dancers. You’ll find their sketches on the new SketchingFireStories website!

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Some of us stood at a table in the activities area and invited people to look at the sketches in a binder. Kyle had come with his band from Elsie Allen H.S. to play in the closing for the day. Penny Hastings, who was there to help interview, knew Kyle and had her pad ready to record his account of the fire, leaving me free to do a quick sketch. He started out by downplaying his story, I think because he didn’t lose his own house. But he had become one of the first responders, spending days helping out at the high school evacuation center after getting his family to safety.

Holly

Next Penny and I interviewed/sketched Holly, whom I had met in Coffey Park. Holly and her husband are now rebuilding the Coffey Park house they lost in the fire. She was one of the legions of people who endured multiple fire related traumas that first week of the fire. She was glad to have come to the Anniversary event. But on the way there she received a Code Red Alert on her phone, which triggered fear. Dry winds blowing on a low humidity day has become an ominous reminder.

CourthouseSquare by Susan Cornelis

On Monday the 8th Old Courthouse Square in Santa Rosa was the scene of another anniversary event where children and adults were decorating the plaza with chalk drawings and words. City and county officials were there along with the firefighter’s honor guard. Senator Mike McGuire was going around handing out what looked like homemade cookies! May Khosia, our poet laureate read her poetry, and a fire fighter rang the memorial bell for all the souls in our county and the tri-county area who lost their lives in the fires.

Forum by Susan Cornelis

On Tuesday morning I got to hear my favorite radio show, KQED Forum with Michael Krasny, live at Luther Burbank Center for the Arts. In the two hours of the program no stone was left unturned in discussing all the issues raised by the North Bay fires that challenged all assumptions about disaster preparedness, from fire fighting to insurance to rebuilding, communications and so much more. You can listen to it here.

I was sitting in the front row, but the stage was big and I couldn’t read the name cards or see facial features clearly. I’ve learned to just approximate my drawings, and I apologize to the speakers! Listening while sketching, writing in between, trying to get the main points but missing many of them. . .I must say that it’s a challenge that makes the time fly by! The group above was in the first hour.

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And then a whole new seating of illustrious experts arrived in the second hour. I was so impressed with the passion and dedication of all the speakers. They admitted that yes, we are not ready for another Tubbs Fire, but we’re doing everything we can to fight the battles that need fighting to bring resources to bear. And here’s what you, the home-owner can do.

And so, here we are in the lovely month of October, with tree colors starting to flame. With no firestorms, but also no complacency about that, because we remember too well. We’re a community still needing years more of healing and recovering from last October. But I think the anniversary events helped those who lost homes and jobs, as well as those who didn’t. If there is such a thing as a shared spirit of hope, this community has it.

I hope you’ll visit the Sketching Fire Stories website, Facebook page of the same name and Instagram #sketchingfirestories to see more of our group’s sketches!

Kevin’s house

It all started with the article in the Press Democrat showing Bettina and Carole and I sketching out on the streets of Coffey Park, that famously unfortunate neighborhood of fleeing souls that lost 1200 homes in one night in last October’s firestorm in Santa Rosa, CA.

Sasha saw the article and contacted us to see if we could do a similar “fire story sketch” of  Kevin’s (her fiance) home that burned that night.  The idea was to try to do something showing the passage of time.

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I started by sketching what was the present moment of the new home coming up on a street which was busy with construction.

Of all the neighborhoods in Santa Rosa that burned in that fire, Coffey Park is way ahead in efforts to rebuild. You can see the Coffey Strong signs everywhere that express a kind of neighborhood “united we stand” sentiment that has proved to be so vital to the spirit of healing and renewal.

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Sasha wanted another sketch showing the possession that Kevin was the most distressed to lose in the fire – his shiny new red motorcycle! Luckily she had a photo of the motorcycle before and after, as well as a before the fire photo of the house. I was able to combine all three in this rendering.

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Sasha invited me to come after work to see how the house was coming along, meet Kevin, give them the sketches, and watch the Coffey Strong neighbors greeting each other for their “walk the neighborhood” and potluck gathering.  There were smiles and hugs and picture taking and exchanges of information about how the construction is going, decisions that are being made, etc. It felt like the kind of survivor’s club I’d want to be a member of.

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Kevin and Sasha are told the house will be finished by Christmas. I sure hope Kevin has a motorcycle under the tree!

“Sketch Artists Capture Coffey Park!”

We made it to the front page of the paper! A treat to wake up to this:

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The online version here is easier to read and features lots of sketches, Carole Flaherty’s, Bettina Armstrong’s and mine.

Many thanks to the members of the award winning (a Pulitzer prize no less!) Press Democrat team of reporter Robert Digitale and photographer Beth Schlanker for adding this story to their ongoing series about the recovery of Coffey Park, the Santa Rosa neighborhood destroyed by the Tubbs fire.

And here’s page two:

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Carole, Bettina and I agree that this kind of on location sketching is always heart opening and healing for us as much as any people we meet along the way.

“When there’s something that touches our hearts like this, there’s just more in it.” -Carole Flaherty

Color Comes Back to Coffey Park

I was anxious to get back to do another sketch of Coffey Park this week, and managed to make two more trips with my sketch buddies.

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direct watercolor in my new handmade sketchbook, 9X15″ Fluid 100 paper

I’m still working with the #30X30directwatercolor2018 challenge. I wanted to capture the effect of homes going up here and there without much detail and that seems to work well with the direct w/c approach.

While we were sitting there we met 1) the owner of the house I’d sketched last week and got to hear some of his story and 2) a reporter and photographer from our (Pulitizer prize winning!) Press Democrat paper. Exciting stuff, this sitting in the dirt by the side of the road with bulldozers driving by!

So today we were back again for another eventful morning, which started with greeting the carpenters who were having a nutritious breakfast together before working on framing in a house.

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I was immediately struck by how colorful the construction scene was. The bright orange ladders and outhouse, the yellow cords and blue helmets and neon striped vests. Moving up closer to be in the tiny bit of shade available, I also got close enough to hear a lesson in construction and the easy banter of the workmen, punctuated by drills and hammers.

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Meanwhile I was sketching like mad, because the press had arrived to hear our story. How did we get the idea to sketch the fire stories and to keep doing it for months?

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Carole told her story, here with Robert Digitale. . .

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And Bettina told hers, and of course I told mine. And as always happens when we’re sitting out in the dirt on our little stools, we met more people who had their own stories. A man holding his granddaughter walked up to take a peek. He was the owner of the home I was sketching. He recognized my name and I recognized him as my son’s 7th grade math teacher, Mr. Borbe. And there it was, the fresh pathos of a respected and loved man who had lost his home in the fire. Sigh. Even so, he was all smiles. This is what is meant by Coffey Strong!

And then speaking with the photographer Beth, I got a peek at what it was like to drive into Coffey Park on the night of the inferno, to drive past the road blocks, showing their press badges, to have their own fire fighter suit to wear as they encountered that red-hot story.

The last bit of pathos came as I showed the sketches to the carpenters and heard what it is like for them to see what they’ve seen and live daily with it. The up side is getting to actually contribute something so tangible as a new home to people who lost theirs. But coming so close to the stories of loss takes its toll. One of the guys had to stop mid-sentence to staunch the flow of feeling coming on so strong.

And as I remember this day I feel the lump in my throat and the burning in the eyes returning. . .and I can’t wait to get back to more sketching. Funny thing, that.