The wildfires that ravaged Santa Rosa took thousands of homes—including that of Katie Bipes ’17. But she and her parents want to rebuild.
Katie Bipes ’17 lived in just one neighborhood during her childhood in Santa Rosa, California. The house was tan and blue and sat at the end of a cul de sac. Her parents moved in before she was born. It was a neighborhood in the classic sense: All the kids played together and all their parents were friends. Even after the kids grew up and some, like Katie, went away to college, the parents remained close.
At around 5 a.m. Monday, Oct. 9, Katie was awoken in her San Jose home by a text message from a friend back home saying that her high school, Cardinal Newman, was on fire. At first, Katie assumed it was an isolated fire, likely from vandalism. Soon, she realized her friend was describing a fire that had overtaken not just her high school but a broad swath of the city of Santa Rosa, including her childhood neighborhood.
“I called my parents and they informed me that essentially the whole neighborhood was on fire,” Katie says. “They woke up at 1 a.m. to a neighbor ringing their doorbell telling them to evacuate.”
Fortunately, Katie’s parents made it out in time. By morning, they were safe and staying with family a little farther south. Unfortunately, Katie’s childhood home and many others on her block had burned down. “The rest of the day was just a blur,” Katie says.
And the days since have continued to be a blur. Katie has lived in San Jose since graduating in June. Her job is based in Mountain View, and she has made it into the office some days, while working from home others. For better or worse, she is hooked to news updates about the fires.
With most of the city unsafe to visit a week after the fires descended, she feels detached, and at a loss for what she can do. But the news helps, a little.
“It’s hard not being up there with my family,” Katie says. “I know there are a lot of people in my hometown going through this and I can’t imagine what it’s like up there right now. So, reading the news is just a way for me to fully understand what people are going through.”
‘People still need help’
Seeing aerial footage of the devastation has been particularly tough. She recognizes everything in Santa Rosa. In one video clip, she saw her neighborhood and could make out her house.
“That was hard,” Katie says. “When I’ve seen photos from my high school and businesses that I drove by every day, I recognize everywhere in Santa Rosa that burned down.”
Katie’s parents are doing well. She is thankful that they are able to stay with family instead of in a shelter. Not everyone has been so lucky. Her neighborhood is still under evacuation orders and rescue workers are still searching for missing people.
Due to the order, Katie hasn’t been able to see her old home. Her parents however were able to sneak back in. They dug through the remains of their home, trying to find valuables, specifically her dad’s coin collection which he’d been working on since he was 15. He found about a third of them in the rubble.
Her parents have maintained a certain optimism through the tragedy. Her dad is headed back to work this week. He's the Director of Information Services for Cross Check, Inc. Her mother is retired and focusing on the next step. They have already found an apartment for the upcoming year. And Katie, who works in construction management, has begun talking to them about rebuilding the house.
In her old neighborhood, Katie has found some hopeful news. The house of a friend who lived two doors down survived the blaze. In fact, about half the houses on the street are still there—a consequence of the way the winds drove flames into the city by leaps and bounds.
“I told my dad I want to help them as much as I can,” Katie says. “They’re best friends with all their neighbors. So, they don’t want to move. They definitely want to rebuild the house.”
For those who want to assist victims of the fires, Katie says financial contributions are most helpful. The needs of victims can change daily. One day it might be toiletries, the next it’s blankets.
“The fires are still going on and people still need support,” Katie says. “I just want people to stay aware that it’s happening and that people need help.”
To support victims of the Santa Rosa fires, donations can be made to the North Bay Fire Relief Fund.