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Coffey Park residents reflect on the losses, rebuilding progress made

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One year ago, Mike Hibbard climbed onto his roof and shot video of a neighborhood that had been reduced to a sepia haze of hot ash and rubble.

The 70-year-old ski tour business owner this week plans to once more set up a ladder beside his Coffey Park home, one of a dozen on Skyview Drive that somehow survived the flames and cinders that lit up the darkness last October.

“I’m going to go up and make a video one year later,” he said.

Hibbard and his neighbors tonightTuesday are marking the destruction of their conventional suburban neighborhood by the most devastating fire in California history. Hundreds are expected to gather in the heart of Coffey Park, where fire survivors will consider both what was lost and the progress made to rebuild almost 1,500 homes, each one incinerated with a heat so intense that it twisted steel bars and melted the alloy wheels off abandoned luxury SUVs.

For many, the year has been the most disorienting of their lives. The first anniversary offers a chance to reflect upon an uphill journey to rebuild their homes and lives.

“Everything that’s familiar is gone,” said Mike Baker, a resident whose family lost their home on Keoke Court.

The strangeness extended beyond their burned neighborhood and the temporary homes the family lived in this past year. It also included clothing they acquired after the fire and which they often inadvertently left behind at homes of friends and family, said Baker, pastor of Santa Rosa’s Crosspoint Community Church, and his wife, Zöe.

“You just don’t recognize it,” she said, explaining how she could exit a room without remembering to take along a new sweater or jacket.

Sudden loss

The North Bay wildfires claimed 40 lives and nearly 6,200 homes, a level of disaster not seen here since the 1906 earthquake. The most destructive of the blazes, the Tubbs fire, began near Calistoga on the night of Oct. 8 but jumped the six-lane Highway 101 and reached the flatlands of Coffey Park early on Oct. 9.

In Coffey Park, the fire did what previously had been unthinkable. It ravaged a leafy suburban neighborhood far removed from the oak-studded hills and wildlands that surround eastern Santa Rosa. Towering flames entered Coffey Park and devoured whole blocks of working- and middle-class homes, most of them modest and single-story, but with a smattering of two-story and expansive custom designs.

The blaze killed four people and destroyed 1,321 single-family homes in Coffey Park. It also burned 78 Hopper Avenue apartments and 74 mobile homes at two parks west of the freeway.

In the days leading up to the anniversary, Coffey Park residents described the past year as a time of making small steps forward. The disaster brought incredible loss but also repeated outpourings of kindness from strangers and friends.

The way forward remains filled with uncertainties, but many said they plan to persevere based on a hope that they and their neighborhood will recover.

“I long for the day I can say to those who ask, ‘I’m fine. I’m great,’ ” said Velma Guillory, a retired Sonoma State University professor whose home burned on Hilary Court. For now, she said, her stock response about how she’s doing is: “One day at a time.”

Many never returned

Coffey Park fire survivors described the past year as “grueling,” “topsy- turvy” and “horrible.” The disaster triggered a mass evacuation, a scramble for temporary housing and a federally managed debris cleanup. The ordeal that followed included working through home insurance claims and making decisions of whether to find a builder and select a home design to replace what had been lost.

For many survivors, rebuilding has proven costly in time, money and energy. At least 70 property owners have sold their lots in Coffey Park, according to recent data compiled by Pacific Union Real Estate. And about 4 in 10 owners have yet to submit an application to City Hall to rebuild their houses.

Even so, the neighborhood remains the center of the rebuild in Sonoma County. Near the end of September, 21 homes had been completed and another 520 were under construction.

Survivors found different ways to deal with the grief and trauma.

Mike and Zöe Baker encouraged their 9-year-old daughter, Caitlyn, and 5-year-old son, Zachary, to speak out whenever they recalled a special toy, stuffed animal or other prized item that burned.

“Tell us about it and let’s grieve that together,” Mike Baker said.

Months later, new realizations occur for what couldn’t be saved. In August, Mike Baker wanted to find a journal to recall details of a once-in-a-lifetime trip he and his wife had taken to Israel almost a decade ago. He soon realized the journal had burned in the fire.

When such recollections surface, said Zöe Baker, “it’s another sense of loss.”

The couple also spoke of the pain over lost Christmas tree ornaments they gathered during years of family vacations. When time came this holiday season to put up decorations, Mike Baker said, “we couldn’t bring ourselves to do it.”

In an act of kindness, an older couple from their church took the Bakers’ children to get a tree and decorations and then helped the young ones set it up in the family’s temporary quarters.

“The kids were so excited to show us” what they had done, Mike Baker said.

A haunted year

Those whose homes remained standing in the neighborhood also found their lives turned upside down.

On Skyview Drive, near Mike Hibbard’s home, Judy Crowner found it hard in the early months looking out her front windows at the standing chimneys and other wreckage across the street.

Her adult daughter, Melissa Matson, said her 8-year-old son Elijah and she stopped their daily bicycle rides through the neighborhoods. It wasn’t just riding by the debris that bothered her, but also going past places where children used to play.

The hardest part, said Matson, was “missing all the people.”

Crowner’s home was spared during the fire after roughly eight people helped douse its burning fences and scorched back wall. The family had to vacate the house for nearly a month and lost prized memorabilia, including toy “garden trains,” tools and antique license plates from her father and grandfather, stored in a shed that burned.

The mother and daughter said they both have gone to counseling to talk about the fire’s effects on their lives. Crowner admitted she still feels guilt she didn’t lose as much as others. When considering neighbors now trying to rebuild, she said she can’t help “feeling bad for everybody else, because we have a home and they are waiting.”

As the year progressed, some survivors faced more bad news.

Mike Hibbard’s wife, Leslie, lost both her parents. Velma Guillory was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Guillory, who underwent treatment, said her prognosis now “is very good.”

Draining decisions

Last week the Baker family went camping for the first time since the fires, a sort of shakedown cruise for two nights at nearby Sugarloaf Ridge State Park.

Camping preparations used to be as simple as throwing gear in the trunk, Mike and Zöe Baker said. But the couple took until midsummer to find a tent they deemed suitable, and they needed more time to gather other key items.

Mike Baker said the restocking of camping gear is a typical example of the energy required for seemingly simple matters “when everything is a new thing.”

As fire survivors, he said, “you’re inundated with decisions” that demand attention.

Over the months, some found signs of hope.

Mike Hibbard recalled moving back in March after repairs and other work were completed at his home. By then the lots around him were cleared of debris, with little remaining except the scorched trunks of dead trees. However, one evening he noticed the rains had revived green grass and weeds. Hibbard took the discovery as a small confirmation that his neighborhood also would come back.

“It was kind of eerie because of all the trees,” he recalled, “but then you could see the new grass coming up.”

In the next year, many fire survivors said they look forward to moving back to Coffey Park into rebuilt homes.

Gordon Easter, who lost his home on Hopper Avenue, said his neighbors understand that in doing so they won’t get back all they’ve lost, but they now find themselves in a state of limbo. Rebuilding is part of moving forward, he said.

“I just want what everybody wants — their own place and to live the good life,” Easter said.

On Skyview, Judy Crowner said she wants to welcome her neighbors home.

“I won’t be happy until they’re all back,” she said.