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Some students’ childhood homes destroyed in Sonoma and Napa fires

The Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa is one of 16 fires burning in and around Sonoma County. Photo courtesy of Sonoma County Sheriff

When Lauren Averill’s father sent her a video link that captured the devastation of the Atlas Peak Fire burning in Sonoma County, she knew her childhood home was gone.  

“I don’t have a home to go to for Thanksgiving or Christmas, I will never see the house where I had memories of growing up throughout my life, and more importantly and much more devastating than that, my parents have nowhere to call home,” said Averill, a senior political science major.  

Nineteen percent of Chapman’s students are from Northern California, said Robert Pankey, director of  Institutional Research, and some students’ daily lives have been riddled with stress as fires threaten their hometowns and families.

The Atlas Peak Fire in Napa County is considered one of the fastest growing fires in modern California history, according to the Sonoma County Sheriff. Fire officials still haven’t determined what caused the fires to break out on Sunday, Oct. 8, but the dry conditions and lack of humidity aided the fire’s ability to spread so quickly, according to the sheriff.

The two largest fires raging in Northern California – the Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa and the Atlas Peak Fire — have collectively burned about 52,000 acres and are two of 17 fires burning in and around Sonoma County. The fire has killed 33 people and destroyed 1,500 structures, and 256 people are missing, according to the Sonoma County Sheriff.

“My parents got up and looked out what used to be my bedroom window, where they could see the glow of the fire off in the distance,” Averill said. “My dad was running around the house, grabbing essentials and was able to get birth certificates, baby photos, my dog and some clothes. I’m just fortunate they’re alive.”

Averill’s parents made the 20 minute drive to Rohnert Park, a city about eight miles east of Santa Rosa. It took them two attempts to find a hotel with availability, but they are now safe, Averill said. Averill’s aunt and grandparents later joined them, she said.

While Averill’s family evacuated, Lily Foster’s parents are still at their Sonoma house waiting for the signal to leave.

When Foster’s mom called her to ask what she wanted to save from her family home, it hit her that her hometown  was burning to the ground.

“It doesn’t feel real,” said Foster, a junior business administration major. “Many buildings I’ve been to (when I was) growing up or drove past every day are in ashes.”

Although Foster’s family is safe, Sonoma has now been under a state of emergency for a week.  

“Our house is currently OK, but my family is not allowed to leave the house because of how bad the air quality is,” Foster said. “It’s still hard getting information from my family because the cellular service is down in Sonoma. My heart is breaking for my hometown.”

Averill and Foster hope that Chapman students realize the impact of the Northern California fires and the Anaheim fire, which started Oct. 9 and burned 9,200 acres, causing Chapman to close for two days.

“It’s hard when people in the Chapman community don’t understand the magnitude of these events,” Averill said. “I can’t blame anyone too much, as I am sure I would be acting the same way if I wasn’t drastically affected, but it is disheartening to witness people celebrating classes being canceled by going out and drinking while people are losing their homes and lives.”

Averill said she has been in contact with Jaclyn Dreschler, the program coordinator for Greek Life, who she works closely with Dreschler has offered resources on campus, such as connecting her with Dean of Students Jerry Price to work with her professors in case she goes to be with her family, which Averill described as “very comforting.”

“I’ve been thankful for the support from the Chapman community. A number of friends have reached out to check on my family and to see how I’m doing,” Foster said. “My boss from campus has been emailing me to check in, as well as a professor who knew that I’m from Santa Rosa. I’m thankful for the support.”

Natalie Teague, a public relations and advertising major, said she is shocked by the impact that the fire in Sonoma has had on her and her family.

“I am going home (to Sonoma) this coming weekend to check on the state of my home,” Teague said. “We are still trying to wrap our heads around what’s going on.”

With both homes and businesses burned to the ground, Averill said she is worried about the future of Santa Rosa and the Sonoma County.

“I don’t know how people are going to recover from this,” Averill said. “Rebuilding an entire community will take so much time and resources that we currently don’t have, so Santa Rosa is going to need all of the help it can get.”

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