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As devastation revisits Santa Rosa, student journalists find purpose

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Anne Belden was feeling down in the fall of 2017, coming back from a sabbatical to advise the Santa Rosa Junior College newspaper, with a class full of students she had never met.

When the Tubbs Fire ambushed the city in early October, torching more than 36,000 acres, killing 22 people and forcing thousands to flee, she would get to know the young journalists very quickly, and they would change her life.

“I texted my Oak Leaf students (after the fires reached Santa Rosa) and eight of them showed up,” Belden remembers. “Half those students had been evacuated. They worked around the clock for two weeks. They’d have to go to jobs, and some were sleeping in different places every night. It was just an incredible crew and an inspiring moment.”

With three devastating fire seasons in the past four years, Santa Rosa has been forced to adapt to a new reality of wildfire. The changes are reflected in property maintenance, disaster planning and close attention to Nixle alerts. And they can be seen in the Santa Rosa Junior College’s news organization, the Oak Leaf, which has expanded from an emphasis on hyper-local campus news to include the who, what, when, where, why and how of covering a blaze as it tears through their community yet again.

“It’s almost like fire college,” says James Wyatt, a former Oak Leaf editor now studying journalism at San Francisco State University. “You’re going to learn how to report on a fire at that college.”

San Rosa Junior College student Nick Vides, editor of the Oak Leaf newspaper, interviews Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick in 2020.

San Rosa Junior College student Nick Vides, editor of the Oak Leaf newspaper, interviews Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick in 2020.

Courtesy Nick Vides

The news team’s latest challenge came Sunday night and early Monday morning, Sept. 27-28, when the Glass Fire destroyed homes in Santa Rosa’s Skyhawk neighborhood