Life after loss: Berkeley community copes after tragic North Bay fires

'The love in the air is stronger than the smoke'

aftermath_vivianroan_file
Vivian Roan/File

When campus senior Bree Cassells evacuated from Santa Rosa during the Northern California fires last week, she wasn’t sure if it would be the last time she saw her home.

As she packed up her belongings, she selected the objects most sacred to her family. Among them was a stuffed unicorn, “Rosie,” which her daughter named because of her love for Santa Rosa.

Both Rosie and the Cassells’ home survived the fire, but other Northern California homes did not fare as well — at least 57,000 structures were destroyed. Cassells said she hasn’t been back to her home because “the smoke is so bad over there.”

Bree Cassells/Courtesy

Bree Cassells/Courtesy

Cassells, who regularly commutes from Santa Rosa to Berkeley for classes, has been living with her in-laws nearby since the fire.

Now, many victims and evacuees are struggling to reorganize their lives. Cassells said this could be because they are in “survival mode.” In the weekend following the fire, Cassells said the magnitude of the tragedy began to sink in, and she started to grieve.

Cassells said she cries at the “littlest things” and has struggled to fully digest the tragedy.

“Now, I’m realizing all the houses I went to as a kid are gone. My uncle’s house is gone. … Saying someone died doesn’t capture the magnitude of what happened,” Cassells said. “When my dad went up there, he told me it looked like a nuclear bomb had gone off. It’s sinking in.”

Rebuilding from the ruins

Cassells took a week off of school before returning to UC Berkeley on Tuesday. She said her professors were supportive and gave her ample time to recuperate. One of her professors offered to arrange an alternate midterm time for her, but she didn’t take him up on his offer and decided to take the test with the rest of the class.

“It was kind of good to get back to a little bit of my routine,” Cassells said. “It’s overwhelming, but I think that if I weren’t here I’d be at home in my PJs, which isn’t really helping anything.”

On her first day back, Cassells’ family came to campus with her for emotional support. She wasn’t sure she could make the drive alone and wanted to be near her loved ones in case anything happened.

Cassell said she has started to experience her surroundings in a new way since the fires. She is anxious around sirens and more acutely aware of fire safety. Earlier this week, she was sitting in a class in Dwinelle Hall and saw people smoking outside on dry grass and was terrified that their embers were going to fall and start a fire.

Bree Cassells/Courtesy

Bree Cassells/Courtesy

“It’s hard to be here with people who don’t understand, but it’s nice too,” Cassells said. “It’s kind of nice to be here and hear people complain about grades, but also (I) feel like I’m in a different world from other people.”

Berkeley rallies in support

Cassells said the best way for the Berkeley community to help those affected by the fire is to donate to the Redwood Credit Union, where 100 percent of donations go toward securing vital resources such as new toothbrushes for fire victims.

She said although there are some organizations coordinating donations, there has also been a large community-based effort. She added that the little things that demonstrate that people want to show up and help fire victims is what is “so awesome.”

She also advised people to be respectful to community members affected by the tragedy.

“Be able and ready to support,” Cassells said. “Grief is a lonely process.”

Campus sophomore Ella Griffith — who is from Forestville, which is just 10 miles outside of Santa Rosa — echoed Cassells’ advice to donate to the Redwood Credit Union because the donations will go directly to rebuilding lost homes and businesses. According to California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones, preliminary data suggests that the fire caused $1.045 billion in damages.

In addition to monetary donations, Griffith, along with her fellow sorority sisters in Alpha Chi Omega and Alpha Phi, started a donation drive for the fires. UC Berkeley students and community members are encouraged to drop off clothes and other items at the Alpha Phi or Alpha Chi Omega houses.

Bree Cassells/Courtesy

Bree Cassells/Courtesy

Valeria Franco — a campus sophomore from Cloverdale in Sonoma County — also organized a donation drive for fire victims in Santa Rosa and Mendocino counties. Franco added that her professors provided their office spaces to hold donation items.

“The love in the air is stronger than the smoke. It’s cheesy but it’s very true,” Griffith said. “When we see horrible events, we stop and look, then we look away. (But) that’s not happening. … Everyone is mobilizing and helping out.”

Berkeley Humane has also participated in relief efforts by housing animals displaced from the Northern California fires. Berkeley Humane took in 15 cats the week of the fire and took in another five Monday, according to Jeffrey Zerwekh, executive director of Berkeley Humane.

According to Zerwekh, Berkeley Humane is “even more impacted” by displaced animals than it was before because the society previously took in animals from Hurricane Irma in addition to the animals from Northern California.

Siena Guerrazzi — a campus senior from Glen Ellen in Sonoma County — recommended that community members reach out specifically to people who were affected by the fires.

“Each family, each person, is going to need a different kind of help to rebuild, and at this point, we still don’t know what that is,” Guerrazzi said in an email. “Long term, continued support will be essential.”

A community effort

Cassells said the community effort in Santa Rosa is also “amazing” — when she walks into a Safeway, she feels a connection with strangers. She said she noticed a feeling of camaraderie among people in the town.

Bree Cassells/Courtesy

Bree Cassells/Courtesy

“If we didn’t lose a home, we all know someone who lost a home,” Cassells said. “We’ve all experienced this fear — we all love our town.”

According to Cassells, one of the firefighters who helped save her neighborhood lost his home in the fire in Coffey Park, Santa Rosa, but still left both his wife and his one-year-old child to help save other houses. Cassells said that many community members want to help his family in any way they can; the deep sense of community is “profound.”

Cassells added that although some people think of Santa Rosa as a vacation destination, the community has strong roots and feels a connection to what it’s lost in the fires.

“If we rebuild really intentionally, we can foster the community that we have,” Cassells said. “If we hold on to that spirit of community, something good might come from it.”

Griffith said she was amazed by Berkeley’s ability to mobilize and provide relief, despite the grim mood on campus since the fires. She said that even community members who don’t know someone from the areas affected by the fires have “taken a stand” and mobilized to help those in need.

“It can feel trivial sitting in math and having a quiz when people are dying and breathing in smoke,” Griffith said. “I hope we don’t lose sight of this in Berkeley. … People have the chance to help.”

Ella Jensen is the lead student life reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @ellajensen_dc.