By Marcia Belforte
Marcia Belforte was a firefighter in Seattle for 20 years. After moving to Santa Rosa a few years ago, she became a Fire Prevention Inspector for Sonoma County Fire and Emergency Services. The home she shares with her partner Paul was one of 5,000 that burned down in the Tubbs Fire, an incredibly massive and fast-moving fire that lasted for several days in October 2017. Several simultaneous fires eventually destroyed almost 9,000 structures in Sonoma, Napa, and Mendocino counties. What follows are some of Marcia’s reflections in the first days and weeks after the fire.
Whatever happened to my house, I had to help.
We got the call to evacuate at 1:00 am. The hillside was red and the wind was blowing ash and embers everywhere. Minutes was all we had to grab the basics. It took us four hours to drive only 13 miles to Paul’s brother’s house because evacuating traffic was so heavy. We arrived at 5:00 am but waited out front for an hour until they woke up. Gave me time to think. I decided that if I was not called in to work I had to go to one of the evacuation centers to see about helping others who did not have family or friends or places to go. The shelters were already filling up by early morning.
Paul is a physical therapist at a health care and rehab facility so he went there to help evacuate patients. I drove to the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, which soon became the central fire command and largest shelter, capable of housing thousands. The Red Cross was already on site and organizing. I asked what I could do to help. One of the few items I had grabbed going out the door was my uniform. I was ready to work.
What I could do, until the Red Cross had a specific job for me, was talk to people, listen to them. Everyone was in shock. There were so many people, including elderly, who had no place to go. There were dogs, cats, other pets too. I found that simply acknowledging people, asking about them, listening and sharing our stories was of some comfort. There were a few hugs, but no tears – unlike in the weeks that followed when the realization and pain of loss set in. Right then, people needed to know what to do and who to turn to for immediate needs. This I could help with.
No one believed they would spend the night.
People kept arriving throughout the day and we needed a lot more cots set up. I was asked to clear a room filled with tables and chairs where people were eating meals. Many of these folks had settled in to their spot and were reluctant to move. With gentle persuasion I was able convince them that the cots were needed. No one believed they all would be spending the night!
A couple in their 80’s stopped me to ask if there was any way the wife could be helped as she was in much pain. I asked if pain medication would help as a hospital section had already been set up in the building.
It became my mission to help this man and his dear wife who, before this tragic event, were probably trying to take care of themselves in their own home without help. I talked with one of the doctors to get them some pain relievers, which I then assisted her in taking. I could see her discomfort and need to use the restroom. After a few steps with her walker, it was obvious a wheelchair was required. Back to the hospital. When the volunteer doctor returned with a wheelchair, it was determined she should go to the hospital for care. In spite of all the surrounding upheaval, this moment of individual comfort and relief made me feel good – knowing she was getting the professional care she needed.
Being good is a series of selfless moments…
During the early days at the shelter I found other folks who were in denial – couldn’t comprehend how huge and encompassing the devastation was – and all they wanted to know was what was happening in their area and if their own home was still there. When I was a firefighter I learned how to be in the moment and present, to be strong and caring for people who sorely needed it, regardless of my personal issues.
…but remember to care for yourself.
After helping at the shelter, I worked at the Emergency Operations Center on the first Friday fielding questions from other agencies. This is where CALFIRE, CHP (California Highway Patrol), Sheriff, County Fire and Emergency Services, FEMA, CALOES and other government agencies control the entire incident at the government level. I was assigned for the duration to LAC (Local Assistance Center) which is where I worked with the public coming in for guidance. Our table represented County Fire and HazMat.
Working 10-12 hour days in helping others took a toll on me as frequently I found that I would forget a name, or what I was talking about mid-sentence, or wanted to help so much that I did not fully listen to a request and did more than I should have. Friends and coworkers reminded me it was critical to take time off to process my own loss and new situation. This is important advice – confirmed when I followed it!
I have an inner conviction that goodness is all around us.
By giving good and sharing whatever resources available I believe I can make a positive difference in someone’s day. Knowing I helped them makes me feel good too. Even if it is as simple as answering a question at the Emergency Operations Center that left someone feeling relieved and satisfied helps them through the recovery process.
I was brought up to be positive and I really believe that good things come to people who are good thinkers and do good. Growing up in a household and going to a school that exemplified doing good and living love has been an excellent base for me. Though I do not practice any religion, I feel the training and truly believe that things will work out.
It is a positive energy that is almost always with me. My dad had that. Make other people happy and you will feel happy yourself. My mom was so strong and she helped so many people. Her energy was different than my dad’s, but both were wonderful examples of selfless sharing, the need to give to others. By sharing care and love I think it helps to fill a void out there in the world. Even better, if we set an example then a few people will follow.
Simple gestures are like circles of light.
Paul and I were sifting through the ash and debris at the remains of our home looking for anything that could be salvaged, but hoping for a few special keepsakes. Under rubble we found the contents of our vacation piggybank of quarters with most intact in a pile. The quarters were all burned and bulged out due to the copper inside melting faster than the outside metal. They are not useable but are a good visual for a fire that burned up to 1700 degrees. Amazing.
Walking through the burned-out neighborhood were volunteers from The Salvation Army, making their rounds with bottles of water and lunches for all our neighbors absorbed in the deliberate task. Paul walked over to them and handed each one a quarter as a remembrance of this experience and a token of gratitude for their kindness. We were all sharing what we had…right in that place we were a community of goodness. On subsequent searches, we found many treasured ceramic pieces from my family, burned but still intact and whole.
One of our neighbors, a US citizen of Irish birth, had lost her husband a few days before the fire. I was concerned about her and asked every neighbor I saw at the Local Assistance Center, “Have you seen Theresa?” One day I saw a familiar shock of red hair across the room. I bolted over to her and we hugged and cried. Theresa told me she escaped with only her purse and there were so many important documents that she had to have, including her Irish passport. I connected her with all the right people to begin replacing everything. Being a part of the restoration of people’s lives actually helps restore me…it really does make me feel good.
This is what I know from all this.
I really believe that problems can be solved when you persist – and now is the time do it. If I see someone who needs help or something that needs fixing, I will stand up and speak up, to ask anyone to address a problem or suggest a solution. It matters, it makes a difference to those in need.
We can’t look back to change anything…we can only change the path to the future by striving to do our very best right now.
To contribute to Sonoma, Napa, and Mendocino County Fire Assistance, here are some wonderful organizations:
Community Foundation Sonoma County – Mail a check to: 120 Stony Point Road, Suite 220, Santa Rosa CA 95401 . Please indicate “Sonoma County Resilience Fund”; or go here online: https://donatenow.networkforgood.org/1431417
The UndocuFund – Ensures that undocumented families in Sonoma County impacted by the fires will have the support and resources they need to recover and rebuild.
Sonoma Humane Society – The Humane Society rescued and fed domestic animals even before the fires were put out; so many are being treated as well as waiting to be reunited with their families.
Wildlife Rescue Sonoma County – A huge amount of regional parks and forests were devastated by the fires impact thousands of wildlife animals.