By Paul Elias The Associated Press
SANTA ROSA, Calif. — For one Sunday, the fires that staggered this small city and wiped out thousands of homes were an afterthought at Snoopy’s Home Ice In Northern California.
In an ice rink built by Peanuts cartoon creator Charles Schulz, hundreds of 7- and 8-year-olds gathered to play the annual Great Halloween Jamboree tournament, a daylong hockey tournament that brought the Santa Rosa community together after the devastation.
The annual tournament typically attracts dozens of the youngest hockey players throughout the area. Canceling the event this year was considered ‚Äî and then quickly rejected. Organizers found ways to work through a weeklong power outage that melted the ice, a lack of motel space and burned-up gear for 19 hockey families who lost their homes.
The nearby San Jose Sharks of the National Hockey League donated new skates and gear to the affected families. A Santa Rosa coach also owns a local pizza parlour, which donated pizza for lunch. Families greeted each other with hugs as their children returned to the ice for the first time since the fires started the night of Oct. 8, killing at least 43 people and destroying more than 8,000 buildings.
“We needed to be here,” said Rebecca Henderson, one of the tournament’s organizers.
Many more families aside from those who lost their homes have endured damage and displacement, she said.
The family of Daniel Chang, 8, prevailed upon the police to escort them to their smoke-damaged home still within a mandatory evacuation zone so they could retrieve his hockey equipment. Nearly all the homes in their Fountain Grove neighbourhood were destroyed. They have been barred from returning to their house until law enforcement officials lift the evacuation order.
“The tournament is a welcome distraction,” said Seohee Cho, Chang’s mother.
Charles Schulz, a Minnesota native who lived in Santa Rosa and was a hockey fanatic, financed the building of the rink in 1969 in the same complex that houses the Peanuts museum. The rink helped turn the small city about 50 miles north of San Francisco into an unlikely hockey haven. Schulz’s No. 9 Santa Rosa Flyer jersey is the only jersey hanging from the rafters. Nearby buildings were destroyed in the fire, but the rink and its Warm Puppy Cafe came through unscathed.
The Wagner family lost two homes in one of the hardest-hit Santa Rosa neighbourhoods. They fled their new home of 10 months with little more than the clothes on their back. The two Harley Davidson motorcycles in the garage were destroyed with everything else. Their eldest son did the same in their older home a few blocks away, which they were trying to sell.
Everything was lost, including 8-year-old Daniel Wagner’s pet bunny and his hockey gear. School remains closed until next week
“It’s terrible to be 8 years old and have to run out of your house with nothing,” Daniel’s father David Wagner said. “He has no toys, no Legos … nothing.”
David Wagner said Daniel’s participation in the hockey tournament Sunday “was definitely needed.” He said Daniel suffers from nightmares of fire and evacuation. Anything that reminds him of his routine before the fire is welcome.
Standing in his shiny new skates and holding his new stick, Daniel said life may never be the same after the fire.
“I miss my old skates,” he said, still vowing to play professional hockey someday. “I miss my old stick.”