Denise Rosselli thought she had her future all figured out.

An English instructor at Napa Valley College, Rosselli planned to eventually retire from teaching, spend time with her animals and start new hobbies while living “forever” at her longtime family home on Soda Canyon Road

That all changed on the night of Oct. 8 when the Napa wildfires swept over her property and destroyed her home.

“Someone just erased the board and we’re starting all over,” she said. “It’s all brand new.”

From home to homeless

Rosselli, 65, said she has lived at her house on Soda Canyon Road for 46 years.

On the night the fires started, she spotted the flames on a ridge near her home. Scrambling, she packed up her two cats, some clothes and few other items to evacuate. “I just thought it’d be overnight,” she said.

Her home had survived the Atlas Peak fire of 1981, so she assumed it would again.

“If I had had more forethought, I would have taken more, but I didn’t.”

Days later, Rosselli was escorted back to her property. What little that was left of the home was all but unrecognizable, said Rosselli.

“It was so foreign to me, I couldn’t even cry,” she said.

All the outbuildings and garage were gone. The cinderblock walls of the house and a pool were the only remains.

“I lost everything. And I mean everything is gone.”

Today, two months after the fires, Rosselli’s recovery process from the fires continues.

She’s living with a family member in Alta Heights, but come January, she’ll be moving into a rental in downtown Napa.

The small Victorian, normally a vacation home for its owners, “will be ideal for me for the two years while we wait to rebuild.”

“As wonderful as I’m being treated by my family members, you do need your own space,” she said. “I need the time to grieve and be by myself.”

Rosselli said she is trying to look on the bright side. “I’ve always lived in rural Napa County. Now I’ll live downtown and learn what that life’s about.”

Moving on

Rosselli said her recovery has also included many phone calls and paperwork for utilities, insurance and other household bills.

After losing a home to a fire, “You learn more about insurance than you ever wanted to know in your entire life.”

Rosselli did have fire insurance and has already started talks with a contractor and architect. She plans to rebuild.

Most utility providers have been accommodating, although to her dismay AT&T is charging her $20 a month to retain the land line phone number she’s had for 46 years.

“It’s sentimental,” she said of the number. “We do want to keep it.”

Rosselli has also taken advantage of an Employee Assistance Program offered by Napa Valley College.

“I’ve started doing weekly therapy to talk through the trauma.”

That process is going well, although the therapy visits tend to stir everything up, she said. On those days, “I’m kind of a little bit more anxious.”

Getting enough rest is also helping, she said. “I wasn’t sleeping the first few weeks.”

Now, she’s sleeping better, although she dreams about the fire.

“In my dreams the house is already a shambles and another fire is coming for me.”

Rosselli said she’s felt buoyed by family, friends, coworkers and even strangers.

“Everyone has been so generous and very kind,” including colleagues and others at the college, she said. As far as she knows, she is the only faculty member at NVC to lose a home in the fires.

People mean well, she said. Some try and console her with comments such as “you only lost material things” or “you and the cats are alive.”

But that doesn’t make the loss of things like her writing, manuscripts, journals and keepsakes any easier. Yes, those are material posessions, but they are meaningful to her, she said.

Such personal items, and even things like clothing and shoes, help make her life complete.

“I’ve lost those precious things that define you and your identity,” said Rosselli.

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“What I tell people is that I don’t know what you’re supposed to say or how I’m supposed to reply. Just do the best you can and I’ll do the best I can, because we’re all in new territory.”

Because she had no context for such a disaster, “I still don’t understand how I feel day to day about this loss.”

Even something as simple as a shopping trip can be difficult.

“I was in Target one day. I had a kind of a mini panic attack,” she said.

While starting to gather items she needed, Rosselli said she became overwhelmed because she realized she needed literally everything — from measuring spoons to pot holders, to pots and dishes, and much more.

“I started to feel very lightheaded and I took myself over to a corner of the store and did some deep breathing.”

“I do resent the fact that from now on my life will be defined as before the fire and after the fire.”

Checking in

She’s doing her best to keep moving, said Rosselli. “Some days I may falter, but it’s OK to do that. You just don’t want to let it consume you.”

As an English professor, Rosselli said she wants to be particularly attentive to her students who were impacted by the fires.

At the beginning of class, she asks her students to check in. Sometimes that means just a thumps up, down, or sideways, she said. She has her students journal about the fires as well, she said.

Rosselli said she finds comfort in talking to others impacted by the fires.

“Fire victims want to be with other fire victims because they know what they are talking about,” she said. “It’s a shared experience.”

Rosselli said she hopes other survivors can also reach out to a counselor or therapist. She also hopes the county or other agency could help form some kind of support groups for those impacted by the fires.

In fact, OLE Health has begun offering wildfire support groups. Groups are meeting at 1141 Pear Tree Lane in Napa every Thursday from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. English and Spanish groups are available.

“There are a lot of us out there hurting, bewildered and trying to make sense of a world that no longer does,” Rosselli said.

“I’ve lost those precious things that define you and your identity,” said Rosselli.
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Business Editor

Jennifer Huffman is the business editor and a general assignment reporter for the Napa Valley Register. I cover a wide variety of topics for the newspaper. I've been with the Register since 2005.