Debbie Meekins has been a community bank CEO in Santa Rosa, Calif., for nearly three decades. She is the sort of person who is more accustomed to providing help to others than accepting it.
Meekins now finds herself on unfamiliar ground. Early on Oct. 9, a fast-moving wildfire leveled her two-story stucco house in the city’s Fountaingrove neighborhood. Virtually everything she owned — including her car, her clothes, her grandmother’s wedding ring and irreplaceable photos of her family — was destroyed.
Over the last week, Meekins has been running the $1.4 billion-asset First Community Bank while simultaneously taking steps to rebuild her own life. That has required accepting various kinds of help — from the friend who offered her a place to stay to the local stores that are cutting their prices for fire victims.
“Everyone’s offered discounts,” Meekins said in a phone interview Monday. “It’s kind of an odd feeling.”
While she has purchased certain essential items, including socks and dog food, she approaches shopping with a sense of dread. “When you actually have to go shopping, then you have to face the loss,” she said.
Meekins was visiting her daughter in southern California when the fires started. Her fiancée was sleeping in her home of 19 years. By the time he got up, the home’s power was no longer working, and a fiery glow was visible out the window. The fire was moving an estimated 100 yards every three seconds. There was enough time to save the dog, Coco, but almost nothing else.
“I think everybody was caught off guard,” Meekins said.
A few hours later, Meekins was scheduled to board a flight to Santa Rosa, a community of 175,000 in northern California’s wine country, but the local airport was closed. So she got on a plane to San Francisco, where she was greeted by her fiancée.
They drove back north to Santa Rosa and started trying to assess the scale of the devastation.
In Santa Rosa alone, nearly 3,000 buildings were lost. The fires, which are still burning, have scorched more than 245,000 acres and resulted in at least 41 deaths across the region.
One of First National Bank’s seven branches remained closed on Monday. The bank has 118 employees; including Meekins, two of them lost their homes in the fires.
Meekins has deep roots in Santa Rosa — she served as the CEO of Sonoma National Bank from 1985 to 2007, when it was sold to Umpqua Bank – and she is already thinking about the role that First National Bank can play in rebuilding the fire-ravaged community.
She said that local community banks are going to need to band together and get regulatory approval to make more construction loans.
“Everybody’s got to step up here to get this place rebuilt,” she said.
Meekins’ destroyed house sat on a ridge and offered a spectacular view of one of the most picturesque parts of California. She is currently planning to rebuild on the same land, though she did take pause when she heard that the same ridge also burned in a wildfire during the 1960s.
Until then, Meekins faces the same challenge as many other displaced residents — finding a temporary place to live in a community that faced a housing crunch even before the wildfires.
“Hotels are not available,” she said.
Still, Meekins is not one to wallow in sadness. Within days of her home being destroyed she was back at her desk. After all, she said, “There’s a company to run."