Crowds gathered on the Town Green beneath a clear sky still carrying the odor of smoke on Nov. 3. They carried hand-lettered and professionally made signs and banners, and turned their attention to their mayor as he stepped to the microphone.
“Windsor, we’re home,” shouted Mayor Dominic Foppoli as he took the stage at a special event to thank first responders who saved the town from the encroaching Kincade Fire, which led to the historic evacuation of the entire town.
The event took place during the farmers market, and culminated in a an aerial photo of thousands of Windsor residents holding thank you signs and cheering their thanks for the thousands of firefighters and other first responders who saved the town.
Windsor residents turned out with hand-lettered signs (or picked up free, premade signs from local business Signorama or made their own at a booth set up by the library) and screamed, cheered and cried as speakers told the story of how Windsor was saved.
As he expressed his thanks and love for Windsor, Foppoli also provided a sobering tale of just how close the fire came to wiping Windsor off the map.
“A lot of people don’t realize the gravity of how close we came ... the next day (after the evacuation) the vice mayor and I were brought into a room, and I will try to not get overly emotional about this,” Foppoli said with emotion coloring his voice. “It was one of the first times I ever saw Chief Matt (Gustafson) tell us he had bad news. He’s generally a very optimistic guy, but we were brought into a room and told that for all the modeling showed and this was not an if, but a when, that we needed to prepare for the fact that we were about to lose our town.
“All of the fire experts showed us exactly what was going to happen,” he continued to a silent crowd. “The fire was going to come down from the northeast, it was going to come down Chalk Hill Road it was going to get to Foothill Park and then it was going to burn through our entire city.”
Here he paused to collect himself.
“And once it hit Windsor it wasn’t going to stop. It was going to jump the highway, it was going to go to Northern Santa Rosa and burn all the way to the Pacific Ocean. We were going to lose our town, we were going to lose the Russian River Valley and we were going to lose a huge part of our county. This was, once again, not a maybe, not a possibility, this is what was going to happen.
“We had about 12 hours to prepare and process ... and as the winds picked up everything they said that was going to happen, happened. The fire came down from the mountains from the Mayacamas it went through the Knights Valley, it went down Chalk Hill and late in the morning of the weekend it hit Foothill Park. It hit the northeastern part of Windsor and it was at that point that Chief Matt, and I was with him at this point and I got to see first-hand what is probably going to be the most impactful day of my life. Two-hundred-plus firefighters said no more, not today, not in Sonoma County and not in Windsor.”
The wild cheers that followed heralded the introduction of Fire Chief Matt Gustafson who was visibly emotional as he took his turn with the microphone. He made a point to thank all the fire fighters from across the country who came to help fight the fire, as well as the police, dispatchers and town staff who supported the fire department in their work.
“I (also) am very proud of you all for evacuating. It was huge and I know it was such an inconvenience and we wanted you back in your homes so quickly, but while you were gone it was really easy to maneuver around town with massive amounts of equipment and people,” he said. “So thank you for evacuating and more over thank you for neighbors helping neighbors, thank you for those neighbors who helped the seniors get out, the disabled get out, that was awesome. Neighbors helping neighbors was huge, so thank you.”
Also on stage were Vice Mayor Deborah Fudge, Councilmembers Esther Lemus and Sam Salmon and Parks and Recreation Commissioner Meredith Rennie, who was credited with planning and executing the event.
At the end of the proceedings, a photographer armed with a bullhorn crawled to the top of a Windsor Fire Department truck’s ladder, and called out for the assembled to turn their faces and signs skyward and give thanks.