As he stood in a pile of rubble, which only a few days before comprised the foundation of his childhood bedroom, distant memories flashed through Sean O’Donnell’s mind as he tried to piece together the events that had taken place over the past week.
Recognized as the most destructive fire in California history, the Tubbs Fire raged across Sonoma County in October 2017, destroying more than 36,800 acres of land and wiping out at least 5,636 structures.
At the center of the devastation was the neighborhood of Coffey Park in Santa Rosa. It was where a white, one-story house with green trim and a black roof stood at 1716 Hopper Ave. The building was the O’Donnell family home for more than 30 years.
Biological sciences junior O’Donnell woke on the morning of Oct. 9 to find a startling text message from a friend asking if his family was OK.
O’Donnell, unaware of what was happening in Santa Rosa, anxiously awaited a call or text from his parents and began searching news sources and messaging friends for any sign that his family and house had survived the fire.
A little while later, O’Donnell received a text message from his mother saying his parents were safe and the family was waiting for information on the state of their home.
Soon after, O’Donnell received another text message from his parents that his house had burned to the ground and little could be saved from the debris that remained in its place.
O’Donnell became consumed with worry as images of what his house might look like now flooded into his head. Two days later, O’Donnell decided to return to Coffey Park and face the damage that had become of his hometown.
“When I went home, it was good to see my parents and know they were OK, but it was also extremely hard to see them because it brought a flood of emotions and uncertainty,” O’Donnell said.
Director of Counseling Services Geneva Reynaga-Abiko said people react differently when life-altering events happen.
“Any event that is traumatic, life-threatening or unexpected, such as having your house burned down, can cause some people to have issues dealing with it,” Reynaga-Abiko said. “Some people experience problems right away and others later on, once whatever happened has really started to impact them or they have some down time where they can process it.”
O’Donnell recalled what it was like when he first entered his neighborhood.
“It was comforting to see that the downtown area was still intact and things seemed to be running normally, but when I got to my house, it looked like a war zone and I could barely recognize the street I grew up on. It was surreal,” O’Donnell said.
The Tubbs Fire began Oct. 8, demolishing 4,658 homes in neighborhoods including Coffey Park, Fountaingrove, Larkfield and several other communities.
Before the fire reached Coffey Park, the force of blustery winds propelled the fire over a six-lane highway and killed at least two people in the neighborhood.
O’Donnell’s parents were fortunate enough to flee before the fire reached their house and seek refuge at a family member’s house minutes away.
O’Donnell’s parents grabbed a few crucial items, such as clothing, baby pictures, their marriage certificate and other important documents. However, the majority of the O’Donnells’ most sacred and memorable items burned with the house.
“What I’m most sad about losing changes depending on the day and my mood,” O’Donnell said. “Sometimes it’s my childhood toys that I was planning on passing down to my children, other times it’s the letters my grandpa gave to me, recalling his experiences in World War II, or the American flag I was given from the 21-gun salute at Pearl Harbor when scattering my grandpa’s ashes.”
Once the fire in Coffey Park was put out, cleanup crews swept through the neighborhood. Homeowners signed away their rights to their properties as crews spent months clearing out the area, leaving behind nothing but empty plots of land.
The unaffected communities in Santa Rosa and beyond supported those affected by providing meals, hospitality and other necessary resources as people scrambled to make living arrangements and rebuild their lives.
For the time being, O’Donnell’s family has moved into a friend’s guest house in Windsor, California.
“When I returned to Cal Poly after visiting Coffey Park for the first time, my teachers and friends at school were all very accommodating and sensitive to my situation. I’m glad to have such a strong support system at school,” O’Donnell said.
Recently, O’Donnell has struggled to adjust to life as it is now. Due to the events that have taken place over the last few months, his mental health has worsened.
Biological sciences junior Kelsie Hilty, O’Donnell’s girlfriend at the time, recalled the moment when she heard the news of the fire.
“I was sitting in class and my first reaction was to go buy donuts and bring them to him and just be with him,” Hilty said. “He was in his house getting ready for class and he didn’t want to miss class or take a day off, he wanted things to be the same. The next day, he decided he needed to go back up to Santa Rosa and left within an hour.”
Reynaga-Abiko said there are two main responses to dealing with a traumatic event from afar.
“Usually there are two different responses we see,” Reynaga-Abiko said. “The first is denial when someone doesn’t really believe it happened and the second is guilt when they feel guilty that they weren’t there, or guilty that they may still have a home somewhere else.”
Hilty said she saw her relationship with O’Donnell change after the fire.
“I’ve watched Sean change a lot since the fire and I’ve tried to help and be supportive as his mental health has gotten a lot worse, but I don’t know how to handle it or comfort him and it has caused a lot of problems between us,” Hilty said.
Reynaga-Abiko said the Counseling Center has been a resource for students affected by the fire.
“Counseling Services has been there to see students, individually or in a group, to help them get through these things. Tragedies that impact a lot of students are important to us and we try to make it as easy as possible for those students to get help,” Reynaga-Abiko said.
O’Donnell and his family are now in the process of planning to rebuild their house with the same layout of their original home. They will continue to adapt to their new lifestyle and progress toward healing.