Calif. firefighter writes song in aftermath of wildfires
Terry Sanders worked behind the scenes to keep homes safe, posting Facebook videos to reassure residents, including an original song called 'Sonoma Shine'
By Peter Hartlaub
San Francisco Chronicle
SANTA ROSA, Calif. — When Terry Sanders saw the glow on the horizon on Oct. 8, and felt the heavy wind in his face, he knew there was trouble.
But the Santa Rosa resident and Oakland firefighter didn’t realize the magnitude until he headed a few hundred feet down the road from his home to talk to the only man left at Fire Station 5.
“I knocked on the door and said, ‘So I’m sure you know about the fire,’” Sanders remembers. “And he goes, ‘Which one? There are six of them.’”
The first wave of North Bay fires destroyed Sanders’ Fountaingrove neighborhood that night; even Fire Station 5 was reduced to ashes. Sanders, a musician whose previous band once opened for Sammy Hagar, lost a custom amplifier and more than a dozen guitars, including one gifted to him by Carlos Santana.
What happened next still has his friends in awe.
Once his family was safe, the off-duty Sanders — part Batman, part Bob Dylan — threw on his yellow fire jacket and started working behind the scenes, checking on houses behind evacuation lines and assisting his friend Lou Ratto, who was delivering an 1,800-gallon water truck that was used to help save several homes in Calistoga.
All the while, Sanders gave video updates on his Facebook page, offering neighborhood-by-neighborhood information and reassuring words, while explaining from a firefighter’s perspective what was happening.
“I couldn’t watch the news. It was too raw. He was basically my only source of what was going on,” says Cynthia Alexander, who lost her home in Kenwood that same night. “That’s not something you usually tell your friend: ‘You’re my hero.’ But I sincerely meant it.”
The 48-year-old firefighter’s final social media update was his most personal: A passionate solo guitar and vocal performance of a song called “Sonoma Shine.”
#SweetSonomaPosted by Terry Sanders on Monday, October 23, 2017
“Fire up a pickup truck/ Cruise down Highway 12/ Oh Lord, shed his grace on thee/ It feels good to call this home/ Home is where I belong/ Oh Lord, shed his grace on thee.”
Talking about the past few weeks, Sanders, who has served as an Oakland firefighter for 18 years, deflects praise to others. First on the list is his wife, Debra, whose Sonoma County Office of Education job includes assisting homeless children, work that has continued through her own displacement. He mentions Ratto and his wife, Julie, who helped gather pillows and sleeping bags for Sanders’ Oakland Engine 21 colleagues, who were deployed to Santa Rosa with little notice to help fight the fires.
Sanders moved from Oakland to Santa Rosa “on accident,” he says, in 2006, knowing nothing about the city the day he and Debra drove up to check out their future neighborhood. But they fell in love with it quickly. They lost one son to illness while living in the home and raised Isaac, who is 11 now.
“The community is tight. It’s really tight,” Sanders says. “I came from San Francisco, and I didn’t know my neighbors in the city. Here, you know your neighbors, and you know they’ve got your back.”
Sanders wears borrowed clothes and a trucker hat that says “It Is What It Is,” telling part of his story while circling the remains of his once-grand Fountaingrove home. Rain starts to fall, but the firefighter doesn’t seem to notice. Other than a concrete stairway climbing two stories into thin air, only the stunning views remain.
He narrates the scene with a mix of resignation and humor. There is no anger or self-pity. Occasionally Sanders apologizes for the jokes.
“I find humor in the fact that my wife spent that day, Sunday, cleaning our barbecue grill,” Sanders says, pointing at the charred remains. “Man, she did a fantastic job. That grill was bangin’.”
That attitude was part of what made Sanders such a valuable resource to his neighbors in the chaotic days after the fire started. He appeared on MSNBC, joking on Facebook about the makeup process, and coined his own phrases. (“If the ash is gray or brown, you can stick around. If the ash is red and glowing, you better get your ass going.”)
“In that moment, you want to do something — anything you can,” Sanders says. “I wasn’t working in an official capacity, but I think people appreciated having a place to turn.”
Sanders spent most of his 20s as a working musician, performing in bands including the all-black heavy metal outfit Othello’s Revenge.
He was reluctant to form a garage band after so many thrilling professional moments, including session work for rap group Digital Underground and jamming with the Gap Band. But he found three “good dudes who can play” — drummer Greg Saunders, bass player Elmar Kurgpold and keyboardist Steve Seydler — and formed the blues/R&B group the Dylan Black Project.
The band seemed like a distant memory when the fires hit. Saunders’ own Coffey Park house was miraculously spared, surrounded by burned-to-the-ground homes.
But with gifted and borrowed equipment from local music shops Loud and Clear, Bananas at Large and amplifier builder Two Rock Amps, the Dylan Black Project is set to play a pair of benefit concerts Saturday, Nov. 11.
The members had their first practice since the fires on Friday, Nov. 3, and both Sanders and Saunders report it was fun, emotional and cathartic. Like the city, the band feels permanently changed, but maybe a little closer.
“There was no doubt about it. This band is solid,” says Saunders. “Last night was part of piecing it back together. The songs do sound a little different now.”
“Sonoma Shine” definitely takes on new meaning.
Sanders wrote it before the fires, as a statement of love for the region. But the lyrics have an eerie connection to the tragedy: “Floating on a breeze/ There’s fire on the leaves/ No matter where I go/ I’m coming back to you/ Sweet Sonoma shine.”
Sanders just got keys to a rental home, which they hope to move into this week. His family still hasn’t decided if they’ll rebuild and return to the same plot of land.
But he knows they won’t leave Sonoma County.
“I’d rather have a house,” Sanders says, “but if I’ve got to go through this, I’d rather go through it here than any other place in the world.”
North Bay Fire Aid benefit concert: Event begins 2 p.m., with the Dylan Black Project scheduled for 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 11. Suggested donation $10-$100. Arlene Francis Center, 99 Sixth St., Santa Rosa.
Copyright 2017 San Francisco Chronicle