There was very little warning when a veritable firestorm ravaged wooded and residential areas throughout Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties in California, destroying homes and businesses by the thousands.

Several separate fires were active in the region after the initial wildfires began on Oct. 8. According to CNN, at least 41 people were killed by the blazes, with nearly double that number of people reported missing by the time the fires were contained later in the month. More than 217,000 acres of property and 5,700 structures had been scorched. Tens of thousands of residents were evacuated as entire neighborhoods were burnt down.

One city hit especially hard by the fires was Santa Rosa, in Sonoma County, which several independent garden centers call home. Although the store itself wasn’t damaged by the fires, many customers of King’s Nursery in Santa Rosa weren’t as fortunate.

The October wildfires came perilously close to Bennett Valley Gardens in Santa Rosa, Calif.

“There are about 5,000 homes that have been lost in our area, and those folks were our customers,” says manager Susan Hatch. “People come in and share their stories about, if not losing their home, then having to flee for their lives. It was pretty heart-wrenching here.”

Hatch adds that none of her employees lost their homes to the wildfires, but several were evacuated for most of the following week.

At Bennett Valley Gardens in Santa Rosa, operations were closed down in order to not interfere with the ongoing evacuations in the area, says store manager Taylor Black.

“We did close down for four or five days,” Black says. “For a couple days, there were some evacuations in our neighborhood, and then we also just wanted to shut down so there weren’t people on the roads unnecessarily.”

As a result, Black says that business took a hit at Bennett Valley Gardens, but fortunately, the building was untouched. The situation was similar at Prickett’s Nursery, which operates two locations in Santa Rosa and nearby Healdsburg. Both were shut down due to the active evacuation in Santa Rosa, but neither was damaged by the fires.

“The damage we had was basically from not being able to water [the plants] because there was no power, and we’re on well water,” says co-owner Deanna Tubbs.

Bloom’s Wholesale Nursery, a grower in the area that supplies green goods to some Santa Rosa retailers including King’s Nursery, was also damaged in the fires but is working to return to regular operations. Comment from the owners of Bloom’s Wholesale Nursery was not available to Garden Center magazine by press time.

Community recovery

The unprecedented destruction from the fires left thousands of Central Californians without homes and with no choice but to rely on the mercy and kindness of their neighbors. Relief initiatives by private and public entities were launched across the impacted counties, and people opened their homes to friends and strangers in need.

“The amount of support that the community has given to one another has just been a beautiful thing,” Black says. “It’s county-wide. Shelters and donation centers had to shut down because they had so many donations coming their way. Strangers being kind and helpful to one another — I think there’s some beauty in all of it.”

With their businesses intact but their neighbors and clients suffering, garden centers in and around Santa Rosa saw opportunities to make a difference.

In order to help some of its clientele return to normalcy, Prickett’s Nursery is offering discounts to those looking to replace plants lost to the flames.

“We’re inviting our customers to fill out an application and turn it into us, and we’re giving them 25 percent off discount vouchers, which are good until 2021 for them to use at the nursery so they can re-landscape,” Tubbs says. “Applications are starting to come in. Some of the folks have lost their homes, and they’re not ready to landscape yet. We also have several customers that have just lost their landscapes, where the fire came right up to their house. Some of those folks are ready to make things green again and re-plant. They are very fortunate, for sure.”

The fires have also affected the local schools, Tubbs says. An elementary school building in the Mark West Union School District was closed down due to damage, so Prickett’s Nursery has coordinated multiple charity efforts to help the district recover, including a fairy gardening workshop, from which 25 percent of the proceeds went toward repairs for the damaged school. Also, for two days in December, Tubbs says 20 percent of cut tree sales will go to the district.

Sloat Garden Center, which operates 14 stores throughout California, announced that it will donate 10 percent of pre-tax sales from Dec. 1-3 to North Bay Fire Relief, with a minimum donation of $25,000. All donations will benefit the Sonoma Community Resilience Fund.

Thousands of Californians’ homes and businesses were destroyed by the wildfires.

Preparing for the unexpected

Unlike some other natural disasters like hurricanes, wildfires often strike with little to no advanced notice. Tubbs says officials in her region determined that the October fires began with a sparking transformer setting fire to nearby foliage — combined with high winds and dry conditions, the flames expanded rapidly.

“It’s one of those things that nobody would expect for our area at all,” Tubbs says. “I don’t know that there’s a way to really prepare for anything like that.”

Others said the intensity of the fires was unprecedented.

“There were four major fires in our county at the same time. It was nuts,” Hatch says. “The weather was very, very dry and the wind was coming out of the east, which was unusual. Any small spark was fanned into a large flame very quickly.”

Aside from the direct damage caused by the wildfires, there are unexpected side effects that survivors must be aware of. According to FEMA, regions recently hit by forest fires are at an elevated risk of flooding.

After wildfires die down, danger remains in the form of elevated flood risks and other side effects.

“Large scale fires like the ones that raged in October leave the land stripped of vegetation, charred and unable to absorb rainfall,” according to a press release from Sonoma County officials. “This creates the perfect conditions for flooding because of run-off.”

While there’s only so much one can do to be ready for a sudden, out-of-control wildfire, there are resources available to inform citizens and businesses of unexpected natural disasters. Tubbs recommends Nixle, an app that forwards mobile alerts from emergency response agencies.

“I’d say everybody should sign up for those Nixle alerts. You sign up for it, and on your phone, you’ll get a text message — that’s how I knew about the fire,” she says.