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Sonoma fire survivors find ongoing support in community

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Three generations of the Botello-Burgi family resided in two houses side-by-side on Warm Springs Road. The children grew up there and attended local schools. It was a place of fond memories; the place they called home. On the night of Oct. 8, all of that changed.

Umberto Botello, step-mom Jacki Burgi and their three daughters Isamar, Ariana and Genesis lived in a rental house. Jacki’s mother, Cheri Burgi, lived next door in the Glen Ellen home she purchased 32 years ago.

“When I turned in on that Sunday evening, I smelled smoke,” Cheri said. “But I just thought it was a neighborhood barbecue.” After midnight, Jacki pounded on the front door to awaken her mother. Then the sheriff drove past, his megaphone blaring, “Evacuate, evacuate now!” The family decided to head for a friend’s home in Bodega Bay. Cheri took no personal items and left behind her computer and the files and records used in her bookkeeping and tax business. She didn’t see signs of fire and expected to return soon.

Back at her own house, Jacki gathered the pets — Little Boy the dog and the guinea pig Tequila. Isamar grabbed her quinceañera photo album and other family pictures. Umberto, a self-employed remodeling contractor, kept his tools and other equipment on site. He wanted to take them with him, but couldn’t. Outside, and about to leave, he remembered his cash savings still in the house. “I was tempted to go back,” he said. “But I needed to get my family to safety.” Umberto and Isamar drove away in the truck, followed by Jacki with Ariana and Cheri. When the family caravan neared Temelec, they spotted flames and a red glow across the horizon. For the first time they realized the magnitude of the disaster. In Bodega Bay, they gathered at a friend’s place. Others had headed for the coast too. Nine hundred evacuees would eventually camp on the beach.

Later that evening Cheri received a photograph of her home from a neighbor. A gas flame flared where once there had been a kitchen. A blackened brick chimney stood amid smoldering rubble. “We lost everything,” Cheri said. “We hugged and we cried.”

With their homes gone, the close-knit family had to spread out over four locations. Some rented an Airbnb in Glen Ellen. But after six months, the owner decided to sell the property and they had to move on short notice. Umberto, Jacki and Ariana stayed in a hotel for several weeks so Ariana, now a SVHS freshman, would be closer to school and Jacki nearer her job.

“I lost all my tools and everything I needed to do remodeling work,” Umberto said, his voice heavy with emotion. “Now I cut trees and clear debris from burned properties. Some day I hope to have enough equipment to do construction again.”

The Botello-Burgi family were stunned and thankful for the outpouring of support they received from the community. Isamar and her sisters participated in the Sonoma Valley Mentoring Alliance for many years. Isamar, a 2017 Sonoma Valley High School graduate who now works for the Sonoma Valley Community Health Center, and her mentor, Anina Fuller, had been together since second grade at Flowery Elementary. She and Fuller had become close. On the morning of the fire, Isamar, worried about Fuller, called her at 2 a.m. “Unlike Isamar and her family, my home in Aqua Caliente survived. I knew I had to do something to help,” Fuller said. “I set up a GoFundMe website where family, friends and others could contribute.”

The Bodega Bay Grange provided the family with gas cards. The Bodega Bay Volunteer Fire Department gave them a turkey, Costco gift cards and money for clothes.

“I got a call from La Luz saying they had a check to cover a month’s rent,” Umberto said. “They told me that it was because of Isamar, that she had filled out an application.”

Sister Cities, a client of Cheri’s, organized a Christmas raffle to raise money. And the American Red Cross, the Rotary Club, the Redwood Credit Union and SVHS all pitched in.

Umberto’s son Beto, a firefighter with the Schell-Vista Volunteer Fire Department, had fought the wildfires along Lovall Valley Road. A homeowner there heard about Umberto’s plight and gave him tools and money to help restart his construction business.

The owner of the Botello’s burned rental house sold the lot. Cheri, meanwhile, received replacement proceeds from her insurance company and plans to rebuild her home.

The Botello-Burgi family looks forward to the day when they will all be together again. Meanwhile, they remain resilient, strong and grateful for the community’s support.