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Video: Petaluma Community Awards of Excellence

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Almost six months after the beginning of the worst disaster in Sonoma County history, Petalumans gathered to honor some of the heroic and charitable deeds their fellow residents did over the past year in a ceremony dominated by the October wildfires.

Petaluma Fire Chief Leonard Thompson told more than 200 assembled at Rooster Run Golf Club that he was breaking with tradition this year. Normally, the chief nominates one member of his department as Firefighter of the Year, but this year, he said, the entire department was worthy of the honor.

“I’ve kind of thrown things into a tizzy when it comes to nominating a Firefighter of the Year,” he said. “This year, I’m making it the Year of the Firefighter.”

Thompson said that Petaluma firefighters worked in the hardest hit areas of the county, like Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park, Sonoma Mountain and Glen Ellen. They toiled with little sleep for 10 days, saving lives and property, the chief said.

“The fires brought new stories of heroic actions,” Thompson said.

Several other honorees at the 2018 Petaluma Community Awards of Excellence had a hand in assisting the city’s neighbors during the fires that burned more than 5,000 homes. Chris Ranney, who won Citizen of the Year honors, stepped up to co-chair the Sonoma County Rotary Clubs’ efforts to distribute $1.5 million to fire victims, many of them small business owners. He also helped lead Rotary projects like building Petaluma’s Miracle League baseball field and raising money to fight polio.

Ranney said that assisting others cuts across demographic lines.

“The harsh truth is we are living in a challenging time in our history,” Ranney said. “People are angry, we don’t listen to each other’s viewpoints as much as we used to and we are a rather polarized nation right now. But on the flip side, this provides us all with an incredible opportunity to break through that noise and disharmony, to come together under one tent so to speak, to simply reach out and help others in need.”

Petaluma Animal Services Officer Mark Scott, the Service Person of the Year, was also honored for work during the fires. After setting up an emergency animal shelter a the Lucchesi Center for fire evacuees, Scott was dispatched to Santa Rosa and spent a week rescuing pets trapped in the flames.

In accepting the award, Scott said he’d “rather be chasing a squirrel on a freeway,” than speaking publicly.

“I’ve been blessed to do this job for awhile now,” he said. “I love working with all you guys out there, firefighters, police. I can’t thank you enough.”

High school sophomore Paige Williams, who was 15 when the fires broke out in October, spent 170 hours running the evacuation shelter at the Petaluma Veterans Building. She was honored with the special Youth Service Award at Thursday’s ceremony.

“I dedicate this to all the resilient evacuees,” she said. “I did it for them.”

Both the Large Business of the Year — Fishman Supply — and Small Business of the Year — Heritage Salvage — played a role in helping fire victims. Heritage Salvage, the reclaimed wood company, launched a trust fund to help victims rebuild their burned homes. Michael “Bug” Deakin was not there to claim the award, but sent a video message from Hawaii.

“Practice your sustainable enthusiasm,” he said. “And remember, it’s all about the love.”

Leland Fishman accepted the large business award a decade after his company, Fishman Supply, won the Small Business of the Year honors. The janitorial supply company gives back to many Petaluma causes and donated supplies to evacuee shelters during the fires.

Musical group Los Gu’achis accepted the award for service to seniors. Instead of a speech, the quartet, which entertains at Petaluma senior centers, played a festive musical interlude.

Petaluma Police Chief Ken Savano presented the Police Officer of the Year award to Officer Jacob Gutierrez, who made several high profile drug-related arrests last year. Savano said Gutierrez’s work with federal agents helped bring down organized drug rings in Petaluma.

“He doesn’t just make arrests, he understands the bigger picture,” Savano said. “He passionately serves you and our community.”

Vanessa Luna Shannon, who runs Gateway to College, a program at the Santa Rosa Junior College Petaluma campus that allows struggling high school students to graduate and earn college credit, accepted the Excellence in Education award. She said that she sees herself in the 75 students that she directs.

“I believe when we see ourselves in our students, we treat them as our equal,” she said.

Kip and Marilyn Herzog took home the Excellence in Agriculture award for their decades of service in the local dairy industry. Kip raised Holstein cows and Marilyn is the president of the Sonoma County Fair board. Marilyn also holds the distinction of being the only Sonoma County resident to be named California Dairy Princess.

Jane Hamilton, director of Rebuilding Together Petaluma, presented the Volunteer of the Year award to James Fitzgerald, who has volunteered with the nonprofit that fixes low income residents’ homes for more than 10 years. She joked that she sometimes gives him their most difficult clients.

Fitzgerald said he was proud to be honored in a city known for doing good.

“It’s really nice to have a whole city of people who help each other,” he said. “I thank all of you.”

(Contact Matt Brown at matt.brown@arguscourier.com.)