Local Losses Communities face damage caused by Northern California Fires

By China Granger, Neva Legallet and Anne Pritikin

At the beginning of the year, the principal of Cardinal Newman High School in Santa Rosa County gave each of the students a shirt that read “One school undivided.” At the time, many of the students didn’t see the relevance of the message, including senior and ASB president Kasey Braun.

“We were like, ‘Why did you make this? What’s the point of it?’” Braun said.

That was before last Sunday, when the Tubbs Fire swept through Santa Rosa County, destroying numerous neighborhoods and community buildings—one of which was the campus of the American Catholic high school, Cardinal Newman. In the wake of the devastation, during a church service held last Thursday, those shirts suddenly held newfound meaning for Cardinal Newman students.

“At the Mass a bunch of people wore those shirts and it really came true. We are one school undivided. We can get through this together,” Braun said.

The fire swept through Cardinal Newman High School, destroying much of the school. Photo courtesy of Kasey Braun.

According to Braun, although the gym still stands, the library, main office and many classrooms have been destroyed.

“There are so many memories. I’ve been going there for four years and now half of it’s gone. It’s awful,” Braun said.

Although for some tired, over-stressed students, an extended break from school may be a welcome relief, but for Braun, it is a sobering reality.

“For the first time I actually want to go to school. I wish I could, but I can’t. It’s hard because being with your friends is such a comfort and now we’re all scattered because a bunch of people have evacuated from their homes,” Braun said.

“It definitely aches to think of the place that I’ve been going to high school for the past few years of my life is for the most part rubble, just destroyed."

For Joe Bone, a senior at Cardinal Newman, the loss of his school hits hard.

“It definitely aches to think of the place that I’ve been going to high school for the past few years of my life is for the most part rubble, just destroyed,” Bone said.

Now, Braun isn’t sure where she will be going to school for the remainder of the year.

“When I heard that it had burned, it was kind of just a rumor. I didn’t know if it was true,” Braun said.

According to Braun, the school administration is working to get students back to school either through online or off-site classes, but there are no clear solutions. Students also plan to submit various assignments through Google Classroom and possibly meet once a week.

“I heard some of my friends in AP English got an email from their teacher and the teacher asked if anybody was willing to offer their house for a meeting, a study group, for their class because there’s nowhere else to go,” Bone said.

Some students might simply enroll in other schools.

"We want to be at Newman, but we’ll see.”

“A lot of people have been saying they’d want to go to this school or that school or whatever, but personally I’d hate to see my school split up because we’re such a close community and my grade is pretty close. We’re a pretty small school, so I’m close with the majority of the kids,” Braun said. “It would be pretty hard to be separated after something like this.”

Although large portions of the school are destroyed, Braun is hoping to return to the familiarity of her school.

“I hope the school can bring in portables and get rid of all the damage, and hopefully we can get back to school. We want to be at Newman, but we’ll see,” Braun said.

According to Braun, in a school of just over 600 students, their ASB is aware of over 20 students who have lost their homes to the fire. Although Braun did not personally lose anyone to the fires, she knows of peers who have lost loved ones.

“My friend’s elementary school teacher passed away [in the fire] and that’s been hard for her because she really loved that teacher,” Braun said.

"This is honestly bringing a lot of people closer together."

In the wake of the tragedy, Bone, who is currently living in San Francisco with a mutual friend of his father, feels the community has come together.

“I think that this is honestly bringing a lot of people closer together, people that are technically friends, but don’t really talk really much are all coming together, offering shelter, clothes,” Bone said.

According to Braun, GoFundMes have already been set up for families who have lost their homes.

“People from all over, like alumni, family and friends of students and faculty have been reaching out, saying that they want to help rebuild and want to help donate,” Braun said.

On Monday, Braun, along with ASB presidents from all across the Sonoma County School District, met to begin organizing a clothing drive.

“We have exact sizes for certain people and then we’ll either deliver it to their houses or set up a location where they can come and get the clothes. The school has been pretty supportive of those people,” Braun said.

On Tuesday, she met with other the Cardinal Newman ASB members to discuss ways of supporting affected community members.

Cardinal Newman also held a Mass Thursday night as a way to reconnect and reflect after the devastation.

“I know two teachers who lost their homes. I saw them at the Mass last night. For a Catholic school that’s kind of our place to come together,” Braun said. “Most of us are united in that we believe in God and everything happens for a reason, so that’s keeping us together and giving us hope for the future.”

Although Braun’s house was not damaged in the initial blaze on Sunday, her family has been prepared for days to evacuate their home for a second time, first leaving on Monday after a downed power line caused a neighbor’s house to catch fire. Braun woke up at 2:30 a.m. that morning to see the hills near her house bright red.

“We didn’t have power, so we didn’t know what was going on, if the fire was close to us, or who was affected. My friend called me in the middle of the night and told us we had to evacuate, get up and leave,” Braun said. “It was just awful, we had to drive through our street and it was on fire.”

Even with the possibility of a second evacuation, Braun’s family chose to stay in their home.

“We would prefer to stay here where our family and friends are community are, even though the air quality is bad, just because being together is more important,” Braun said.

On that same Monday, Bone awoke to a situation similar to Braun’s.

“I was half-asleep because I found out at 2 in the morning. I woke up to my step-mom telling me that we had to evacuate right away because there’s a fire coming at us. We left in a matter of five minutes. I just got out of bed, put sweats, a shirt on, grabbed my phone and some flip flops and nothing else,” Bone said.

Compared to the loss of lives in the community, the destruction of material possessions holds less significance.

“My dad reminded me of how lucky we are to have each other and nobody is hurt and that we can replace things like a surfboard and skis and cars and houses,” Bone said.

Six miles from Cardinal Newman, the 156-acre Paradise Ridge Winery sits in the Fountain Grove Development in Santa Rosa. The property was home to a multitude of both old and modern structures, but after the Tubbs fire swept through Santa Rosa on Sunday night, a sculpture garden and acres of singed grapes are all that remains. Owned by Walter Byck, the grandfather of senior Janneke Byck, and mainly run by Byck’s aunt and uncle, the winery has been nearly destroyed by the devastating flames. None of her family members were living on the property at the time of the fire.

"My favorite place in the world."

For Byck, the property, which was bought by her grandparents in 1978, captures the very essence of family.

Only the sculptures were unharmed by the fire at the Byck's family ranch. Photo courtesy of Janneke Byck.

“It was my favorite place in the world and there were a lot of special moments there. That’s one of the key things that brought my family together and it’s why I’m so close to my cousins and aunts and uncles,” Byck said.

The ranch is a cache of the memories she shares with close friends and relatives, and a testament to her family’s immigration from Holland. It’s where she has spent her Thanksgivings, Christmases and Fourth of Julys. It’s where last Memorial Day weekend hundreds of people at the ranch convened for an annual spring gathering of family and friends. It’s where several family members exchanged wedding vows there, including Byck’s parents and other relatives.

“I grew up on this ranch. I’ve gone since I was a little baby and losing that is the worst part,” Byck said. “It’s sad to see those special memories gone.”

"The next morning it had already been destroyed. It didn’t seem real to me. It almost still doesn’t.”

The winery was the destination for countless camping excursions and fishing trips on the ranch’s lake and the site of her grandfather’s larger-than-life sculpture collection, curated from various Burning Man celebrations.

One of the numerous houses on the property, which had been standing for over 100 years, was destroyed before the family had time to prepare for the damage, along with all the other buildings and wine facilities.

“I think [the property] was one of the places that was first affected by the fires. I went to sleep on Sunday, and the next morning it had already been destroyed,” Byck said. “It didn’t seem real to me. It almost still doesn’t.”

Byck was unsure of the extent of the damage until her parents visited the ranch in person. She said her first reaction was shock.

“At first we knew the fires were up there, but we didn’t know if the winery and the ranch were okay, so that was my first reaction was wondering if it’s okay,” Byck said. “When my parents went up there, they assessed it and I was preparing myself for that, and it was pretty much all destroyed. I guess it’s still shocking, and it hasn’t sunk in yet.”

The family’s vineyard, which produced grapes both for their own brand and to sell to other wine producers, has been damaged not only by the fires but also the poor air quality following over a week of continuous burning.

“The smoke isn’t very good for the grapes, and so I think the grapes this year are no good. Probably the price of California wine will skyrocket,” Byck said.

Despite the damage to the vineyard, Byck is grateful that the fires didn’t reach some of the more historic aspects of the area, especially the ancient trees.

“You can rebuild a house but you can’t replace a tree that’s been there for decades,” Byck said.

Byck’s family is still evaluating the destruction of the property and the grapes, but remains hopeful for the ranch’s future.

“Everyone’s focused on assessing damage and seeing what the next steps are. It’s hard to see even a couple of months in the future, so we’re focusing on the now and the next steps,” Byck said. “Now we have the opportunity to rebuild and create something greater; we can make all new memories.”

Page design by Anne Pritikin.

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