A Chat With Social Worker Bill Dorsey About the Tubbs Fire

By Shelly Kalmer

Note:  I wrote this article in late October when, at that time, the Tubbs Fire in Napa and Sonoma Counties was the most destructive in the state’s history. 

On November 8, 2018, exactly 13 months later, residents of those counties awoke to beautiful, but extremely windy weather. Mobile phones began beeping with Nixel reports warning of high fire danger in our area. By mid-morning, the smell of smoke raised the emotional alarm for the residents of Region A and the Nixel alerts quickly became notices of smoke drift from the Camp Fire in Butte County.

It was with sadness and unwanted knowledge of the trauma that the residents of Region A watched the devastation of the Camp Fire. 

The fires that raged through Sonoma County during the early morning hours of October 9, 2017, were the most destructive in the State’s history.

What became known as the Tubbs Fire started on the night of October 8, and was officially contained on October 31, 2017.  In the wake of the firestorm, the region lost 5,643 structures of which 4,658 were people’s homes as reported in the November 1, 2017 edition of the Press Democrat.

Entire neighborhoods were decimated within hours of the start of the fire. One of those neighborhoods is in the northwest corner of the city of Santa Rosa; a neighborhood affectionately known as Coffey Park. 

Coffey Park is a neighborhood with detached homes, cul-de-sacs, trees, parks, and many conveniences for the families that lived there including proximity to the main thoroughfare Highway 101. 

In a recent edition of Sonoma Magazine, Coffey Park resident Gabe Meline describes Coffey Park this way:

Coffey Park was a close-knit community, one square mile in all, bounded to the west by farmland, to the east by Highway 101. Most of its two- and three-bedroom houses were built from the same handful of blueprints copied and flipped and replicated, over and over, to cut costs for first-time homebuyers. Living in them were families from diverse ethnic backgrounds — white, Latino, Vietnamese, black, Filipino, American Indian.

Coffey Park is also home to a number of professional social workers. One of whom is a colleague and friend of mine. Bill Dorsey, LCSW, whom I met through my involvement with the NASW, is a long-time member of our professional association and has presented on numerous occasions at local events as well as at the NASW National Conference in 2012.

In addition to being a truly professional top-notch social worker and friend, Bill is a husband, a father, and an extremely talented musician.  On not-enough occasions, I’ve had the pleasure of being in the audience attending a concert by one of the two bands that Bill is a member of.

In the early morning hours of October 9, 2017, Bill and his wife, Lynn, received notice to evacuate their house in Coffey Park. Thinking that the fire was on the east side of town and unlikely to jump the six lane freeway and many concrete areas, they left believing they would return to their house of 20-plus years. When they left, they left with nothing but the clothes on their back and a  few snacks to hold them over until they could get back to their home for breakfast and to start their day. 

Unfortunately, when they were able to return to their neighborhood, all that was left was ash.

Recently, Bill shared a picture of an art project he recently completed.  The scenic-painted doors with keys hanging on them represent more than art for Bill and the community and as the one year anniversary was marked in various ways.

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Bill to learn about his ongoing healing and resilience process. 

SK: How has being a social worker contributed to your art? To your resilience?

BD: One aspect of social work is helping improve “connection”: perhaps to loved ones, to community and to our own feelings and self. Our work requires caring about others, being genuine and also creativity and improvisation.

Losing our home of 23 years devastated me to my core. While I intellectually knew how to work toward resilience, taking action was harder than I expected. As a social worker, I know that one can’t get through the ups and downs of life by oneself, and I opened myself up to accepting help from others. This was hard to do, as we tend to be “givers.” So, with much support from others, strength to take one step at a time, and tears now and then, I feel like I’m beginning to heal. I feel like the art piece tapped into my desire for connection: me to the community, and connecting the community.

I’m so very grateful to my family, friends, co-workers, fellow musicians (I play drums with local bands and church; that’s another way I connect, and use creativity and improvisation in a communal setting), charitable organizations and kind strangers who all contributed to helping me and my family move through this time.

SK: What prompted you to do this project?

BD: Librarian Cathy at the Northwest Santa Rosa Library branch —the branch that serves Coffey Park—knew I had lost our home. Cathy told me about her “vision” of all the house keys that don’t fit anything anymore, held by the patrons of the library. She felt that something could be done with these keys to memorialize the losses of the fire. Her comments touched me deeply, and we spoke more over the ensuing weeks. I decided to try my hand at a way to display the keys, and came up with idea of decorated doors. We call the project “Keys to Recovery”.

SK: What feelings do you hope your art will evoke in people who have lost their homes?

BD: I think I share similar feelings with other fire survivors: one minute sad, another grateful, another minute angry, another numb, another hopeful. I spoke with many neighbors who attended the Coffey Park remembrance event on October 9. Some shared that they had angrily thrown away the keys to their lost home, others wanted to keep their keys (and are thinking of having their new locks re-keyed to their old keys), and others saw it as an opportunity to acknowledge the loss of the past, and look toward a new future. Keys and doors hold all kinds of symbolism: departure, entrance, safety and security, adventure, uncertainty and much more. Neighbors attached their key to the door with a ribbon of hope. I hope the project evokes these feelings and more, with a movement toward feeling better about a brighter future.

SK: How did your feelings of grief and loss change if at all during the creation of this piece?

BD: As I was having conversations with the librarian about the keys, I was also realizing I was at a point in my recovery from the trauma and grief that I felt I finally had some energy to “give back”. The process of requesting donation of doors from Habitat for Humanity, and the subsequent designing, painting, and attaching my own keys helped me feel a sense of greater purpose, and letting go. I know the grief will always be there, and I also feel that it is slowly fading, never to be fully forgotten, but hopefully more in the background.

SK: What is your hope for people who view/experience your art?

BD: I am currently looking for a location to publicly show the doors. I hope fire survivors who put their key on the door will be able to look toward a brighter future. I also hope that others who see the keys and doors will be able to reflect on the changes in their own lives, and perhaps find some resilience and healing in knowing they are part of a larger community that has endured loss, survived and moved ahead.

SK: Anything about survivorship and recovery you’d like included in an article to your professional peers?

BD: I think I have a deeper understanding of how trauma and grief impact us, and be able to use my experience to support others through their tough times. One phrase that I have heard a lot through this year has been “If you’re going through hell, keep going!”. While I have had my days of “paralysis” and inaction, I try to keep moving forward, even if I’m unsure of the time frame and outcome. It takes courage, faith and support of others.