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Emptied Sonoma County neighborhoods reopen to weary evacuees

Patti Delano, right, and her daughter Caroline, take a look at their Larkfield home, Monday Oct. 16, 2017 as the area is slowly being repopulated. The Delano family bought the house new nearly 30 year ago. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2017

MARY CALLAHAN,

The wooden fence behind Dale Mahoney’s Larkfield home, the playground for the children in his wife’s home daycare center and the large back-yard trees that border Mark West Creek are all burned, but Mahoney is at last back home.

He was forced out nine days ago by a firestorm that swept down the creek canyon from Calistoga, displacing tens of thousands of Sonoma County residents — their homes either lost or evacuated.

Windsor firefighters saved his home of 16 years from flames that came within about 10 feet of the structure, he said, and razed an entire neighborhood to the south of him just two doors away.

Mahoney’s stretch of Londonderry Drive, part of the otherwise decimated Mark West Estates subdivision, is still without power, though gas service was restored Monday evening.

But Mahoney, 54, is glad to be among the hundreds of people trickling back into neighborhoods around the burn zone in recent days, as law enforcement authorities gradually lift evacuation orders in designated areas where homes are still standing and the areas are deemed safe.

“We lost our back yard, which I feel fortunate that’s all we lost,” Mahoney said.

Across Sonoma County, the fires that broke out late Sunday and continue to burn, displaced more than 100,000 people, while killing at least 22 in the county and burning more than 6,800 structures, most of them homes.

More of those with homes still standing were let back in Monday after the first wave of evacuees were allowed to return Sunday.

Recently repopulated neighborhoods include sections of Bennett Valley and Annadel Heights in Santa Rosa; rural neighborhoods east of Windsor, along Highway 128 near Geyserville, and north of Sonoma; and parts of Kenwood, Boyes Hot Springs, Glen Ellen and Sonoma, all opened Monday.

Parts of Wikiup and Larkfield were opened Sunday evening. A large swath of west Santa Rosa and areas south of Bicentennial Way and Chanate Road were reopened Friday night.

It’s been an uncertain wait for some, though most neighborhoods that survived the wildfires have seen enough people coming and going — around or through checkpoints — that most knew the status of their homes.

For others, there’s been frustration in being kept out of homes they knew had emerged from the fires unscathed.

Chris Bloyd was among a small crowd of people gathered Sunday near the intersection of Airport Boulevard and Old Redwood Highway. The residents were desperate to return home when police were preparing to open unburnt sections of Larkfield.

Bloyd, 35, had been couch surfing in Windsor with his two children and was eager to be back in his apartment complex off Old Redwood Highway. His home was so close to where police had blocked the road he could throw a baseball to it, he said.

“You can see on every map they’ve sent out the fire isn’t even close,” Bloyd said. “It’s really, really, really frustrating.”

His irritation spoke to a common feeling among displaced Larkfield residents, some of whom had protested their neighborhood’s continued closure Sunday. The mood was celebratory when police finally began allowing traffic through about 6:10 p.m., with residents clapping and cheering and even honking as they began heading back into the area.

It was a different kind of homecoming in the greater Mark West Estates, a 195-house subdivision at Mark West Springs Road and Old Redwood Highway located south of Molsberry Markets and west of Riebli School. Block after block of housing was razed during the first few hours of Oct. 9. Many residents escaped just in time.

Though still under evacuation, a dozen or more people were allowed in to check their properties for the first time Monday due to miscommunication among law enforcement.

Phyllis Rogers wore a bright red coat as she walked the footprint of the house in which she raised three kids and spent most of her married life.

Widowed just eight weeks earlier, Rogers, 79, could make out little of what was left of her family home and place of business: broken bottles from her late-husband’s wine collection, an old drill press passed down for generations, the blackened metal box that had been her freezer, the detached soundboard of her piano.

Her son, Daniel, used his cellphone to capture footage as Rogers stoically surveyed the ruins.

“We have a few treasures and we know where to look, but I don’t think there will be anything to recover,” Rogers said. “You know, when you haven’t seen it, you have hope. This changes that.”

A few blocks away on Jean Marie Drive, Richard Vignone, 65, rested on the step of his van as his wife and son sifted through the ashes of their home in the heat of the afternoon.

He stood to point at the mountainside and described watching the fast-moving Tubbs fire crest the hill before dawn last Monday and race into Larkfield below.

“I stood right here at about 1:15 and I couldn’t believe it,” Vignone recalled. “It looked like Satan was behind it with a blow torch. It looked like something out of Dante’s hell.”

Vignone said he had lost his home once, in a 2005 structure fire. It took years to rebuild.

“I don’t know if I can do this again,” he said.

In Kenwood, Jim and Linda Currie’s return to Federica Avenue dispelled any last shred of doubt about the well-being of their house. Fairly certain that fire had not touched their home, they finally had confirmation on Monday.

“We were pretty sure it was okay,” Linda Currie said. “It’s great to be back to see it’s here. We feel bad for some of the other areas.”

Shortly after arriving, the couple saw a neighbor who also had just returned. She was walking her dog. Jim Currie offered her some water.

The couple still have no gas or electricity. “But you can’t complain about the little stuff,” Linda Currie said.

Staff writers Martin Espinoza and J.D. Morris contributed reporting.