Nikkei recount their escape from NorCal’s rampaging fires

WHAT REMAINED ­— The Jolivette family lost their Fountaingrove home early Oct. 9 when the wild fire spread to the neighborhood. photo by Andrew Jolivette

Fires have ravaged part of Northern California since the Tubbs, Nuns and Atlas fires started the night of Oct. 8. The deadly firestorm has since been almost fully contained as of Oct. 25, but not before dozens of deaths and thousands of structures were burned to the ground.

According to Cal Fire, as of Oct. 25, 21 major wildfires have burned more than 245,000 acres, killing 42 people and destroying an estimated 8,700 structures. Of the fires, Sonoma County’s Tubbs fire has been deemed the “most destructive” wildfire in the state’s history, estimating 5,400 structures were lost and killing 22. Previously, the record was held by the 1991 Oakland Hills Tunnel Fire, which claimed 2,900 structures and killed 25. Along with the Tubbs fire, the Nuns fire in Sonoma County and Atlas Fire in Napa and Solano Counties have been listed as the sixth and ninth most destructive fires, respectively.

At its peak, Cal Fire said more than 100,000 people were evacuated during the fire.

Couple Perishes
Suiko Grant, 75, and her husband Arthur Tasman Grant, 95, died together when the fire destroyed their northern Santa Rosa home of more than 45 years. According to a representative of the family, Suiko Grant was born in China and raised in Sapporo, Japan. She met her husband, who was a pilot for Pan Am, while working in Honolulu.

The couple is survived by their two daughters, Tasman Grant and Trina Grant, and their granddaughter Sloane Straayer.

Family Loses Entire Home
Many escaped with their lives, but not much else. Andrew Jolivette described the scene as “truly apocalyptic,” in a Facebook Messenger interview with the Nichi Bei Weekly. Jolivette, a Yonsei, lived in the Fountaingrove neighborhood in Santa Rosa with his brother and his recently retired parents. Almost nothing was left of their home when he returned Oct. 21. Jolivette said he only found fragments of his old coin bank amid the rubble. The only thing his family managed to salvage from the site was a garden statue his father had bought in the 1970s. They lost almost everything else.

“We lost all the family heirlooms and photos,” he said. “An entire family’s past, erased.” He said he was especially sorry for his parents who lost everything they had: his mother’s kimono and silverware collection, his father’s first doctor bag and medical school textbooks. Jolivette noted the silverware had melted and only left a pool of indistinguishable metal amid the rubble.

Jolivette said he received no official call or warning about the fire, and criticized the county for not using its emergency alert system. He said if he had not been up late, his family could have burned to death in their beds.

“Frankly I don’t want much more to do with Santa Rosa anymore,” he said. “I know the emergency response was stretched well beyond what they could feasible do but … the fact remains they provided no support or heads up for me and my family.”

The Press Democrat reported that Sonoma County officials said they did not use the Wireless Emergency Alert system to notify the county of the fire because doing so would have notified every cell phone in the county. Officials said, if issued, the alert could have caused panic and a major traffic jam that would have delayed first responders or potentially trapped evacuees on the road.
Jolivette learned of the fire from a co-worker who texted him around 1 a.m. Oct. 9. He woke his family up and urged his family to begin packing when he saw an orange glow emanating from the other side of the hill. “I ran up to the curb of our driveway. It’s so thick with smoke at this point and then I see one small ember float down and land near my feet,” he said. “I rushed back in the house to tell my family it’s GO time.”

By the time he pulled out of his driveway, the houses down his street were on fire. Jolivette navigated the winding roads using his phone’s GPS and said he could feel the heat of the flames through his car’s windows. His family waited for daybreak in a parking lot in Petaluma, Calif. before heading to a cousin’s home in Novato, Calif.

Jolivette’s family were among the many making frantic escapes. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that Judy Sakaki and her husband Patrick McCallum also escaped their home with only the clothes on their backs when Sakaki realized their home was on fire at around 4 a.m. on Oct. 9.

Sakaki, who is president of Sonoma State University, faced the additional challenge of overseeing her campus, which also shut down due to the fire and smoke.

Mark Hayashi, co-president of the Sonoma County chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League, said Oct. 25 at least five Nikkei families had lost their homes to the best of his knowledge.
Many more residents had to evacuate, but their homes and businesses were spared. George Thow, assistant to the minister of the Enmanji Temple in Sebastopol, said he was not aware of any congregation members who were permanently displaced, though a temple board member stayed in the temple for a few nights when they had to evacuate.

Arnold Shimizu, a founding member of Sonoma County Taiko, reported that their members and dojo, located in Santa Rosa, escaped damage as well.

Chanoyu Teacher Evacuates Twice
Eiko Mouri said she had to evacuate twice: once from her own home, and again from her son’s home, also in Santa Rosa. She reported that her home, along with her son and daughter’s homes, were all spared.

“I was getting into bed just past midnight and I could see out the front from my bedroom window. It was like an African sunset, and I thought it was strange,” she said in Japanese.

“Then I got a call from my daughter. She told me about the fire and I went upstairs to get a better look. I could immediately see the flames.”

Mouri said the fire department advised her to evacuate, but said she decided to stay the night because the winds had been blowing away from her house. The smoke, however, became “unbearable” the next day, so she evacuated to her son’s home with her husband. Her son’s home, however, also fell into the evacuation area, so they left for Sebastopol and stayed there until Oct. 13.

Mouri, who teaches Japanese tea ceremony, said one of her students lost their home in the fire. Her students later asked her to perform a tea ceremony to still their nerves after a harrowing week. She lamented the loss of the Nagasawa Round Barn, a local landmark constructed by Japanese American “Wine King” Kanaye Nagasawa in 1899, as well as the death of her friends, the Grants.
Filmmaker Lina Hoshino, co-owner of the Petaluma Pie Company, said she too learned about the fire on the morning of Oct. 9. “About one or two in the morning, my husband actually woke up first.

He was woken up by the smell, the smoke. It smelled like forest fire,” the Petaluma resident said. “It was so strong that, at first, we thought it was in our house. We were panicking and ran outside in our pajamas to see if anything was burning.”

Hoshino said they were advised to get ready to evacuate, but they never left. Their home and business were safe from the fires and all of their employees were OK, though four of them had to evacuate.

Hoshino said she is now concerned about the local economy. “I’m concerned about how they are going to rebuild their homes and their lives. Just like the rest of the Bay Area, Sonoma County was experiencing a severe housing crisis before the fire started,” she said. The loss of thousands of homes, she said, would only exacerbate the shortage of housing in the region. “Of those people, people who are in the lower income or are undocumented, vulnerable members of our community, are going to face tremendous challenges.”

While firefighters have fought a monthlong battle to squelch the wildfires ravaging Sonoma County, its community is still just starting to assess the damage and figuring out what it will take to rebuild.

Several resources have been started to help the victims of the fires.

• The Redwood Credit Union has started a relief fund which can be found at https://www.redwoodcu.org/northbayfirerelief. One hundred percent of donations, which are tax deductible, will “go directly to support those affected” by the fires.

• The UndocuFund will go toward aiding undocumented immigrants who need assistance because of the fires. Donations can be made online at: http://undocufund.org or checks sent to: Checks can be mailed to: UndocuFund for Fire Relief, c/o GCIR, P.O. Box 1100, Sebastopol, California 95473-1100.

“One hundred percent of all donations will go to victim support.”

• The Community Foundation Sonoma County has started the Sonoma County Resilience Fund, which can be found at www.sonomacf.org.

• Sonoma County officials have shared resources to provide assistance to applying for aid as well as finding temporary housing within the county at http://sonomacounty.ca.gov/EOC-and-PIO/Fires-October-2017/Community-Information-and-Recovery-Resources.

• Napa County also offers resources for those seeking assistance at www.napalac.com.

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