My parent’s house in ruins.
Yesterday marked one year since the catastrophic Tubbs Fire exploded through Napa and Sonoma Counties, consuming thousands of homes as it spread. My parent’s home, the house I grew up in, was among those that were lost. The journey through the last year after the fire has been a memorable one and, thankfully, one that has generally been a positive experience given the circumstances.
Considering what the last summer has wrought in terms of fire here in the North State, I reckon it might be a good time to look back on what happened in Sonoma County and recount a bit what has happened to family in the aftermath. Hopefully it will offer some optimism in the wake of what has transpired over the last year.
I don’t want to descend into a long bit of prose, so I think the best way to do this is to put up a number of pictures and include a lot of captions. Hopefully this format works well.
The old neighborhood gone:
Our house in ruins:
Sifting through the detritus:
We naturally wanted to look for things to salvage but were aware that there was not likely to be much. Many things were found but the flames had left them worthless. Perhaps most heartbreaking was my dad’s extensive tool collection. Everything was burned or altered and nothing was useful any longer, though many of the tools remained. The metal was brittle and the handles often melted away. One of the few things we found that was worth keeping was a length of the original cables on Half Dome. These had been taken down and replaced sometime in the late 80’s or early 90’s, cut up into short sections and then sold off as a fund raiser for the Yosemite Association. My parents, being longtime members and having met climbing Half Dome in 1963 naturally bought a section. My dad had it in his library, on a shelf full of theology books. After the fire, many of the books still looked like their pages were intact. In reality, it was really just page-shaped ash. He told me about where it was on the shelf, I stuck my hands into the “books” and they quickly dissolved into a powdery mess. I sifted through the ash blindly until I finally felt the cable, unharmed by the fire. It was our first salvageable find of the day.
We eventually settled in to look for that which had value that could withstand the flames: jewelry. Melted gold and silver still has value and the precious stones withstood the flames. We set up a sifting station with three grades of screens and a collection tub at the bottom. Fortunately my parents knew where all the jewelry and gemstones were located and got to work in strategic spots. We were quite successful.
After sifting for a couple of days we broke camp and returned to our homes (or in my parent’s case Honor Mansion, where the owners, good friends of my parents, put them up for three months following the fire!). Before leaving, we shoveled the ash around the excavation site into almost a dozen 5 gallon buckets with the intent to sift through them at a later date. We then covered the area up, unsure what, if anything we were going to do in the future. I came back down a few weeks later to cut the trees down and toss them into the ruins so they would be hauled away when the site was cleaned up. I removed the metal and looked down in the hole. Sitting right on the surface of the ash was a huge diamond! What were the odds! I snapped a quick image before grabbing the nifty little rock.
Can you spot the diamond? Click here to see it.
I then cut many of the trees down with my chainsaw and threw them into the debris as planned. When the Army Corps Of Engineers cleaned up the site, they hauled the trees away gratis.
A ghostly sight during clean up:
Once the clean up began, the sites were cleared fairly quickly. Driving around in the Sonoma County fog, the neighborhood seemed like an apparition. The home debris was cleared but the burned cars were left stacked because they would be handled by auto insurers rather than homeowners insurance. Once they were assessed by adjusters, they would eventually be hauled away.
All gone now:
As with all the others around it, my parents house was eventually cleaned up, the debris hauled away and several inches of topsoil scraped off, to be hauled away as well. Now it is a nice dirt pad, awaiting the future:
My folks did not feel the need to remain in limbo indefinitely, waiting for the uncertain rebuild process. Fortunately, they were positioned financially to be able to buy a new home. They were willing to look beyond Sonoma County but ultimately found the perfect home (truly, my mom quickly testifies she likes the new house better than the old one) in Santa Rosa. They pounced on it in December and were able to move in early in 2018. It was just in time too. Within 3 weeks of escrow closing, the house was reappraised for new insurance and had already appreciated well over 100,000 dollars. Thus is the dividend of losing over 6,000 houses to fire in a market already short on housing. The good fortune of finding a great house in an exceedingly tight market was compounded by the fact that the insurance company could only find like housing for people who lost houses 2-3 hours away. The reality of just how short housing now is in Sonoma County was quite stark.
As I write this one year after the fire, they are pretty much settled and have moved on. My parents are resilient people and were not going to sit around once the fire hit. It was time to move on and move on they did. Despite all the loss, I look back fondly at the days spent at the old house with my parents and my brother. The four of us, the old nuclear family that once lived there, spent the days sifting and rummaging through the debris but also laughing, reminiscing and enjoying each others company one last time at the place where we had lived our lives. It was a lot of fun and a healthy act of closure as we turned the page from one phase of my parent’s lives to another. I am grateful for my family and I am grateful that life is still good, in spite of the flames.