Three years since howling winds, downed lines whipped up North Bay firestorm

It has been three years since howling winds and downed power lines whipped up a firestorm in the North Bay, ravaging parts of Sonoma, Napa, and Mendocino counties.

There were dozens of fires beginning the night of October 8 and after midnight Oct. 9, 2017.

And what no one realized then: it wasn't an anomaly, but the start of a new normal. 

"It feels like there is something just around the corner and that's very unsettling," said Lani Joliff, a board member of Coffey Strong. "This is the new normal that nobody wants to have. "

Coffey Strong emerged from the ruins of Coffey Park, a neighborhood devastated by the Tubbs Fire.

"We are incredibly bonded together, a well-oiled machine, determined and successful in everything we've done," said Joliff.

Her own home was spared, but from the earliest days, she plunged into the disaster, navigating assistance and rebuild, from street-lights to the community park poised to re-open.

The once-razed community is almost entirely rebuilt but Joliff says the disaster doesn't fade, because big fires followed: the Camp, Kincaid, Lightning Fires, and now Glass Fire, every year since.

"We have people from Santa Cruz who are reaching out to us for information," said Joliff, as she stuffed gift cards into welcome packets for Coffey Park homeowners who are newly rebuilt.

It is disheartening to see wave after wave of new victims.

"We didn't want to know what we know, but now we have a wealth of information that can help them," said Joliff.

"They know other people have gone through it, and we're going to help them every step of the way."  

Santa Rosa's mayor at the time of the disaster is now a newly-elected Sonoma County Supervisor, taking office in January.

"Vegetation management is a huge issue for us right now," said Chris Coursey, who admits he didn't expect the 2017 catastrophe to usher in so many subsequent fires. 

"It seemed unreal at the time and I thought it was just a one-off."    

He expects fire to remain a dominant issue and threat.

"I don't know whether we're getting better at stopping them or we're just getting lucky but they've all had the potential to be just as bad as the Tubbs Fire in 2017."  

Coursey notes improvements have been made in fire detection and warning, prevention and readiness.

But he understands how the ongoing stress, oppressive smoke, power shutoffs, and risk may have some people ready to leave.

"When crisis hits year after year, it gets hard," said Coursey.

"But I think this is the best place to live in the whole country and I'm not going anywhere." 

Usually, the anniversary is marked with public observances, but the pandemic has quashed that this year.

At Thursday's CalFire briefing on the ongoing Glass Fire, Santa Rosa's Fire Chief spoke of the life-changing ordeal.

"Three years ago, we went through some incredibly difficult times," said Chief Tony Gossner.

"I just want to thank everyone who is helping us with this current fire we're experiencing, knowing that many of you were here in 2017, helping us then." 

And he led a long moment of silence to honor those who did not survive 3 years ago.

"For the people, the 22 souls who lost their lives October 8th and 9th," intoned Gossner.

At 7:30 a.m. Friday, a five-minute bell-ringing ceremony will be held with members of the Santa Rosa Fire Department Honor Guard.

The live event can be viewed here. 

Debora Villalon is a reporter for KTVU.  Email Debora at and follow her on Twitter@DeboraKTVU