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Coffey Park residents face ‘comfortable unsettledness’ four months after Sonoma County fires

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Coffey Park changes little each day now that the excavators have moved out, but the lack of activity doesn’t stop Richard Lane from driving there three or four times a week and checking on the empty lot where his house once stood.

There’s not much to see at his Crimson Lane property except a cyclone fence encircling the swimming pool and what Lane calls “Martian greenscape,” an erosion control mulch spread over the ground that once glowed emerald but has slowly faded to a dull yellow. Nonetheless, he is looking past what he now sees and envisioning what he and his wife, Alison, will have once they undertake their rebuilding project.

“We’re actually at the point where we’re thinking what our house is going to look like, and that’s a good place to be,” he said.

Like their northwest Santa Rosa neighborhood, the residents of Coffey Park find themselves in a period of preparation four months after a historic wildfire upended their lives. The neighbors have seen their burned lots cleared of debris. But while a single new house has taken shape west of Coffey Lane, the time of rebuilding for many remains months away.

Survivors find themselves in what neighbor Mike Baker calls a state of “comfortable unsettledness.”

Baker, pastor at Crosspoint Community Church on Guerneville Road, noted his family now is “in our own space” in a rental home not far from their old neighborhood. Also, he has selected a construction company to rebuild the three-bedroom, two-bath house he lost on Keoke Court.

Even so, he said, “deep down there’s still that unsettledness of not being home.”

The neighborhood, a compact collection of tract housing subdivisions, in the early hours of Oct. 9 suffered the most concentrated destruction from the fires that hit Sonoma County. The Tubbs wildfire claimed four lives and destroyed more than 1,300 homes in Coffey Park — among 24 people killed and more than 5,100 homes burned in the county.

Over the past four months residents have made progress, but much still lies ahead in order to get back into their homes.

For many, locating temporary housing proved an ordeal. Some found rentals in December, about six weeks after the fire, while others didn’t find a place until January or even early this month. Some have ended up staying with family.

For Pamela Van Halsema, housing help came through longtime friends from the former Santa Rosa Charter School. Erica and Scott Lindstrom-Dake offered to move in with relatives so that Van Halsema and husband Dwayne Mulder could bring their family into the couple’s home off Hidden Valley Drive in east Santa Rosa.

Van Halsema said she found the offer overwhelming. She agreed, saying “I just had to learn how to accept kindness.”

“I don’t take it for granted,” she said of both the temporary home and her generous friends. “Not one day.”

Looking ahead, many residents said they have selected a builder.

Like the Lanes, such survivors now are planning what changes they will make to their old house designs — or even choosing a completely different floor plan. Many expect to see their builders break ground this spring or summer.

But plenty of neighbors have yet to select a contractor or to settle upon a design. Some said they simply are taking more time to make the right choice.

For others, the delay comes partly because they are underinsured in comparison to the cost of rebuilding, said Damian Clopton, who sits on the board of the Coffey Strong neighborhood rebuilding group.

Also, many homeowners are still waiting for their insurance companies to spell out exactly how much they can expect to receive for reconstruction.

“They don’t know what their options are because they don’t know what they’re going to be able to collect,” said Clopton, who lost a home south of San Miguel Avenue.

A key question has been whether the neighbors could save money by banding together to hire the same builders, surveyors and soil engineering experts. Some savings likely will occur, but many predicted that construction workers will end up hopscotching around the neighborhood rather than being able to concentrate their labors and construct nearly all the houses on the same block.

One reason for the dispersed rebuilding effort is that Coffey Park homeowners have so many choices.

Baker said he spoke with more than a dozen builders before settling upon Shook & Waller Construction of Santa Rosa.

None of eight people interviewed for this story had yet signed with the same builder.

Residents acknowledged their surprise that more neighbors aren’t working together to enjoy more savings through economies of scale.

“In theory it could work tremendously,” said Eric Edenfield, who lost a home on Starview Court. But he said many residents have found it “like herding cats” to get neighbors to commit to the same surveyor or builder.

Residents acknowledged the neighborhood’s recovery remains a long ways off. But many still expressed hope that one day they will return to homes in Coffey Park.

“It might be a snail’s pace,” said Hopper Avenue neighbor Gordon Easter, “but we’re still moving forward.”