Sonoma County fire survivors rebuilding cedar log home in Mark West neighborhood
The cedar logs of Gary and Lynda Bayless’ longtime home in the Mark West area north of Santa Rosa burned ravenously in the October 2017 Tubbs fire, melting gold and platinum jewelry pieces, reducing diamonds to powder and concrete foundation into crumbles.
As a jeweler working with precious metals for more than four decades, Bayless estimates the house and a lifetime of keepsakes were incinerated in temperatures of at least 2,000 degrees.
The firestorm left little behind but the 9-inch spikes Bayless had hand-driven into the logs 43 years ago when the Vietnam War veteran built the home on a wooded slope where the couple raised four sons.
A 120-foot redwood tree, planted to commemorate a fifth son who died at birth, had to be cut down, among more than 100 trees felled on their 1-acre lot after the blaze that roared down the Mark West corridor in the early morning hours of Oct. 9, 2017.
One neighbor perished in the blaze; others were severely burned. The Baylesses fled first to the Hilton Sonoma Wine Country hotel, which ignited a half hour after they arrived. They spent a wide-awake nightmare from a safe distance at a friend’s house in Sebastopol, watching the wind-driven fire advance on Santa Rosa.
“You could see the trees exploding. You could hear the propane tanks going off,” he recalled.
The night of the Tubbs fire was “100 times worse than Tet,” Bayless said, referring to the surprise offensive mounted by North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces in 1968 that soured American public opinion on the Vietnam War.
Bayless, a San Francisco native, was there working as a Navy storekeeper, heavy equipment operator and combatant.
Now, 14 months after the fire, the Mark West landscape has patches of rain-nourished greenery, while deer, foxes, skunks, raccoons, rabbits, squirrels and dozens of hummingbirds have returned to the sloping lane where the Baylesses have immovable roots.
In a Christmas message written to family and friends, Lynda Bayless recalled visiting the site of their burned home two weeks after the fire, with tree trunks still smoldering amid a mass of debris. “Our children feared we’d break down, viewing the destruction,” she wrote.
“But we didn’t. Instead, all we felt … was the certainty we belonged here. We needed to come back home, and heal. We recognized a forever bond to this bit of earth around us.”
The couple is sharing a 279-square-foot trailer, sans privacy according to Lynda, while a two-man crew from Michigan that specializes in erecting log homes assembles the 8-by-6-inch northern white cedar logs. They are kiln-dried, pre-cut and marked to fit together at a New Hampshire mill.
Nearly 3,000 feet of raw wood logs, which arrived on two 18-wheel flatbed trucks, now form four sturdy walls, with the roofing and completion of an auxiliary room awaiting the crew’s post-holiday return.
Stick-built homes clad in plywood are going up throughout the Mark West area, but theirs is a striking outlier, a two-story, 2,100-square-foot log cabin that commands attention. A county building inspector told Bayless it is one of just two log homes built here since the fire.
Cedar is shunned as firewood because it burns hot and fast, but it is also an ideal insulator. The logs retain heat and repel cold so well that Bayless said no other insulation will be needed on the interior walls.
And then, he said, standing in the rain-dampened future kitchen still lacking a closed roof, there is a lifelong aroma embedded in the wood. “It’s like living in a giant cedar hope chest,” Bayless said.
Coventry Log Homes, the family-?owned mill that designed the home and produced the logs, gets raw cedar from within a 100-mile radius around the village of Woodsville, New Hampshire. In the last two years, only five of about 100 log homes the company sold each year were cedar. Most customers opted for pine logs that are 10 percent cheaper, sales associate Kris Still Arnold said.
Arnold and John Allen, chief operating officer at APM Homes of Santa Rosa, said it is hard to compare the cost of log homes with conventional stick-built homes because of the variables such as size, style and types of materials.
“It’s two different types of construction,” Allen said.
Sonoma County and the North Bay have many log homes, mostly smaller ones built 60 to 100 years ago, he said. Large, expensive new log homes are prevalent in the Tahoe area, Allen said.
Meanwhile, post-fire rebuilding is going slowly, with just 2,270 homes in the works or finished, amounting to 43 percent of the 5,334 Sonoma County and Santa Rosa homes lost in the 2017 inferno.
In the Baylesses’ 62-home rural subdivision, fewer than a dozen residents have committed to rebuilding and there are for-sale signs on some empty lots.
“Most of the folks don’t even want to talk about it,” Gary Bayless said.
He and his wife are looking forward to life under 9-foot ceilings, a bigger kitchen and a first-floor master bedroom with a sliding glass door that opens onto a wrap-around deck and affords a view of a winter-?run creek with a waterfall. Part of the redwood planted in honor of their fifth son will be fashioned into a mantle over the electric fireplace.
Lynda will have her own computer station and laundry room adjoining the first floor, while a 600-square-foot cellar will give Gary, a home winemaker for 40 years, a workshop and an insulated room that will keep 15 barrels of wine at about 62 degrees.
The couple, who have seven grandchildren, will celebrate their 49th wedding anniversary on Dec. 27.
In closing her holiday message, Lynda wrote: “Now, we are better. We’ve learned that an empty place is something ready to be filled - with days to come.”