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Inflamed: A Book About Wine Country's Deadliest Firestorm

Updated: Feb 11

© Cheryl Alterman Photography 2024

In October 2017 Santa Rosa experienced the worst wildfire since 1964. I live in one of the neighborhoods that 1400 homes burned down in that sad and dark October. I experienced my own nightmare in those wildfires as did so many of the 488,000+ residents of Sonoma County. Although my home was not one of the 1400 that were lost, I lived my own wildfire nightmare. Back then, I was working full time in the radio business. KSRO talk radio was one of the stations in the group I was working for. KSRO was the radio station that acted as our main place to tune for information on the fire updates. The radio stations' own hero, Pat Kerrigan, the main on air personality and beacon of light whom we all listened to, was our voice and guidance navigating us all that October. I sought comfort in her voice on the air, and some nights I worked round the clock with her, answering phones at the station from my community who like me, were also displaced.

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Music Festival was happening so I was staying the weekend in the East Bay, away from Sonoma County. One of my co workers, Cathy, texted me a film of firefighters saving what she thought was my house...she was right! I found the firefighters in the video the following day by the noting the fire station number on the truck in the clip she sent. They were from Berkeley Fire Station no 6, headed by firefighter Mike Shukin, (my hero), and our story was included in the film produced by local resident Stephen Seager called, Urban Inferno. A forty minute version can be seen here: We each have our own personal stories and memories of when the fires swept through our neighborhoods and of the havoc and heartache we endured. I got to write about mine here in The Music Soup.

Anne Belden, a faculty member at Santa Rosa Junior College, and her co author Paul Gullixson documented a story on that fire regarding the misconduct of senior living facilities in the area. Inflamed, the dramatic story of hundreds of senior citizens left in the path of a ferocious firestorm and what the quest for accountability reveals about the increasing risks to our most vulnerable population they tell in their new book, Inflamed: Abandonment, Heroism, and Outrage in Wine Country’s Deadliest Firestorm,

I first met Anne a few years ago, through another faculty member at the local junior college. Since meeting Anne, we found we have mutual friends in common and I've had the pleasure of seeing Anne at many friends' gatherings since. Recently one of our mutual friends, had a book signing party at their home, honoring Anne and the new book. She spoke to those of us in the room about the book, Inflamed: Abandonment, Heroism, and Outrage in Wine Country’s Deadliest Firestorm, and answered our questions

Anne Belden works in the journalism department, part of the Communication Studies department at Santa Rosa Junior College. She is the program director there and also advises the Oak Leaf Newsroom Anne is a well-respected, knowledgeable resident of Sonoma County and a fixture around the SRJC campus for two decades. "Inflamed" has gained a lot of notoriety since its release, and it even sold out of its first edition, so we had to wait to publish this article until Amazon began printing the book on demand, and they are ready to ship now! The audio book also came out this week. You can purchase the book easily with one click of any of the links in this article (including this) and start reading Inflamed as soon as it's delivered to your door! 

"Just after midnight on October 9, 2017, as one of the nation’s deadliest and most destructive firestorms swept over California’s Wine Country, hundreds of elderly residents from two posh senior living facilities were caught in its path. The frailest were blind, in wheelchairs, or diagnosed with dementia, and their community quickly transformed from a palatial complex that pledged to care for them to one that threatened to entomb them. The rescue of the final 105 seniors left behind on an inflamed hillside depended not on employees, but strangers whose lives intersected in a riveting tale of terror and heroism. Headlines blamed caregivers for abandonment and neglect, but the truth proved far more complex—leading to a battle for accountability that stretched from the courtroom to the state legislature, and ultimately, to the ballot box."

Inflamed: Abandonment, Heroism, and Outrage in Wine Country’s Deadliest Firestorm is the gripping and emotional narrative detailing what happened to these seniors, employees, and rescuers before, during, and after the Tubbs Fire decimated portions of Santa Rosa, including Oakmont Senior Living Villa Capri and part of Varenna at Fountaingrove. Anne Belden and Paul Gullixson are professional journalists and Sonoma County residents who spent three years recording each phase of the disaster in agonizing detail—from the botched evacuation and its excruciating aftermath to the investigations, lawsuits, and breakdowns that followed. They tell this harrowing story with a veracity and compassion only achieved by experienced reporters with local roots. Their narrative revisits the horrors of 2017 but also asks the reader to look to the future and consider how their community’s most vulnerable will fare as ten thousand Baby Boomers retire each day, the for-profit assisted living industry rapidly expands, and the climate becomes more volatile. If this travesty can happen at high-end senior living complexes, it can happen anywhere.

“Inflamed…a powerful work of investigative journalism about a particularly vulnerable segment of the population…. Alongside an engrossing account of the emergency as it unfolded in Sonoma County, Belden and Gullixson provide a definitive account of management’s woefully inadequate response at the two sister facilities. Their findings are a lesson to other care facilities —here’s what not to do.” —San Francisco Chronicle.

If Audible is preferable, the book can also be found there:

Book Signings: Anne and Paul have been making the rounds on all the radio stations discussing Inflamed . And she and Paul been doing book signings and talks at various locations. Their book signings scheduled for February are as follows:

2 p.m. Feb. 4 - Central Santa Rosa Library, 211 E St, Santa Rosa

7 p.m. Feb. 13 - Books Inc. Berkeley, 1491 Shattuck Ave.

11 a.m., Feb. 17 - Redwood Writers, Finley Community Center

7:30 a.m. Feb. 29 - Valley of the Moon Rotary Club, E. Recreation Center 7902 Oakmont Drive

© Cheryl Alterman Photography 2024

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