Earl and Dot Holtz’s faces illuminated as they reminisced about the 53 years they spent building a life on their acre of land in east Santa Rosa. This month, a series of deadly wildfires reduced their home and property to a mangled mass of rubble, sparing only a mailbox and a handmade metal sign in the driveway that reads “Holtz.”
The badly-singed sign, forged by Earl Holtz more than five decades ago, serves as beacon of hope as the couple of 62 years looks to reconstruct their home and their lives on Linda Lane.
After hastily evacuating early Oct. 9 as wildfires ravaged their neighborhood, the couple found themselves living in a 2001 Winnebago RV at Petaluma’s KOA campground. They plan to stay for at least six months as they design their new house while toxic materials are cleared from their property.
Shaded by trees emblazoned with golden autumn leaves, their makeshift home sits in a neat row with other evacuees, employees from insurance companies and workers involved in the massive cleanup of hazardous waste belched out by fires.
Monday morning, 84-year-old Earl Holtz sorted through garbage bags in the trunk of his silver Ford Expedition, piling up gloves, respirator masks and the blackened remains of his family coin collection. Their former home was filled with one-of-a-kind antiques, including a Model T Ford and an expansive assortment of milk bottles acquired over his long career in the dairy industry.
“We could sit and cry, but what would we gain?” Earl Holtz said, intertwining his gloved fingers to stave off the brisk fall air. “We look ahead and have fun looking at plans for the house. There’s no sense crying. We can’t do anything about it.”
For Dot Holtz, making sense of it all is harder. She sank into a cushy chair inside the heated RV as her husband poured over photos of their home, showcasing the structures he made by hand.
“It’s not easy,” the 83-year-old said. “I have to admit, it bothers me.”
The KOA, equipped with 312 slots for campers, has become a refuge for displaced residents, owner Chris Wood said.
“We are doing everything we can do in this situation,” he said, declining to further discuss the issue.
The Holtz’s plight is one shared by many Sonoma County residents piecing together their lives after fires burned 6,800 structures, more than 110,000 acres and claimed 23 lives. Petaluma, which was untouched, is a natural choice for residents displaced from Sonoma Valley and Santa Rosa, given its proximity to schools and jobs.
But with a 1.12 percent vacancy rate in its major apartment complexes, meaning that only 35 of 3,125 total units are unoccupied, it’s a tough go. According to the city’s website, projects in the planning process or under construction could bring as many as 1,780 housing units, though those won’t be immediately available.
Advocates want change
Santa Rosa and Sonoma County last week adopted a slate of policies to allow fire victims to move into temporary living situations, while easing fees and prioritizing home reconstruction.
Earlier this year, the city updated its rules on accessory dwelling units, commonly known as “granny units,” that are attached to residences or built separately on properties. It also legalized “junior second units,” an existing bedroom in a single family home converted into independent living quarters. Currently, only one junior second unit or granny unit is permitted on any residential lot.