Santa Rosa glow stick vigil uplifts, unites

Santa Rosa came together Friday evening in an expression of unity to support fire victims. 

It was billed as a glow vigil: glow sticks instead of candles. No one has any desire to see flames. 

"We are not going anywhere, we are staying strong," exclaimed a DJ from the stage at Old Courthouse Square, as a few hundred people cheered and raised their glow sticks. 

"I felt like we all needed to get together and have a great big group hug," organizer Mandi Marrs told the crowd.

Marrs is a self-described stay-at-home mom, who was not directly affected by the fires. 

"I'm not a professional organizer. I just created an event on Facebook and ran with it," Marrs said. “And all these people came out of the woodwork to help me."  

Sunday will mark two weeks since the Tubbs fire blew in from Napa County and torched neighborhoods that never expected to be in danger from wildfire.     

"You won't find anybody here who doesn't know somebody who had their house burn down or lost somebody, " said Santa Rosa resident James MacMIllan, as he stood with his wife and daughter, all wearing sweatshirts emblazoned with the words "Sonoma Strong." The MacMillan family evacuated, and their home survived.

Like many at the vigil, they attended to show support for those less fortunate. 

"There's a lot of healing," Denyse MacMillan said. "And we've got to work as a community to hopefully build back what was there, and stay together."

Twenty-year-old Jenna noted that people are connecting differently since the fire.

"Normally everybody's just on their phones and not really paying attention to who's around them. But everybody is just talking now, and it's just been so beautiful to see our community join together,” she said.  

Friday was also the first day for Coffey Park residents to return to their burned-out properties.

"I'm just showing that we're strong and resilient, and even this isn't going to get us down," said Curtis Martin, a homeowner flying an American flag on his mailbox – the only thing still standing other than his chimney. 

"This was a beautiful place at one time, my wife and I bought it in 1993," he said of the house where they raised two children. 

Martin had not heard about the vigil. He spent all day Friday deep in the ashes, and deep in his thoughts.

"I have no more tears to cry, I'm dried up," he added. 

Martin knows survival matters most, but notes, not everything in a home can be replaced.  

"I had a Lionel train set from the 40's and it's melted, " he said, picking up charred and twisted pieces of the collectible. 

A half dozen ceramic coffee mugs are all he's been able to salvage. 

"Well, what the heck, I'll clean them up," Martin said. “Not that you'll ever drink out of them again, but at least you can save them and have a little memento.” 

While looking at his devastated neighborhood, Martin said it can't be grasped without seeing it firsthand.  

"You just can't comprehend it,” he said. “It's a million to one chance to have the perfect storm form the perfect disaster and that's what happened." 

And as for next, according to community leaders, Sonoma County will experience a test that shapes residents for years to come. 

"We had people in need even before this, and now we have even more people in need," said Jennielynn Holmes, Director of Shelter and Housing for Catholic Charities. 

Holmes warns that the region was critically short of rental housing before the fires, and is even more so now. She cautions recovery will be a challenge for many, and could drive people away from the area. 

"We have to be creative and bold as a community and thinking from all different directions" Holmes said. “We have to keep this amazing generous spirit going, because this is a long term recovery."   

Fund-raising tee shirts sold at the square were imprinted: "The love in the air is thicker than the smoke." A phrase most certainly true at the vigil, as people swayed and waved their glow sticks in unison.