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Coffey Park Chronicles

As part of an ongoing series, The Press Democrat is following the residents and recovery of Coffey Park, the Santa Rosa neighborhood destroyed by the Tubbs fire. Read all of the stories here.

In a backyard without fences in a neighborhood without houses, Mike Hibbard stained his deck’s railing, hoping to preserve the sanded, old-growth redwood from impending rain.

From time to time Tuesday he looked beyond a red toddler swing at the burned-out hulks of a Volkswagen bus, an SUV and a jet ski whose trailer tires somehow hadn’t melted. In the background were chimney stacks, the only standing remains of 100 homes ruined within a few blocks of his Coffey Park home.

Hibbard, a mustachioed, 69-year-old grandfather of five, said his wife, Leslie, would like him to build a new fence to hide what happened to their neighborhood.

“But there’s no fence tall enough,” he said.

The Hibbards belong to dozens of residents whose homes now stand next to blackened wreckage from the Oct. 9 Tubbs fire. Their properties, which suffered various degrees of damage but remain intact, lie along the edges of more than 1,000 tract homes destroyed in the northwest Santa Rosa neighborhood of Coffey Park.

The residential portion of the disaster zone stretches from near Piner Road to the northern city limits and from a few blocks west of Highway 101 to the SMART train tracks. It formerly was a mix of working- and middle-class residents who owned and rented mostly two-story houses built more than a quarter-century ago.

Several of the 23 Sonoma County residents killed by recent fires perished in Coffey Park. This week National Guard members and search-and-rescue teams checked the area for more human remains.

Hibbard, a ski vacation company owner who moved to Coffey Park soon after his marriage 40 years ago, said staining deck rails at his Skyview Drive home is a small way to prevent further damage to what he still has.

“I can’t change what has happened,” he said. “I’ve got to just keep moving forward.”

Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey said the decisions of residents to stay in Coffey Park will make a huge difference in the area’s rebirth.

“They create the kind of neighborhoods that make Santa Rosa what it is,” Coursey said. “We can’t lose that fabric.”

Around Coffey Park other neighbors with standing homes also moved forward this week, even as the land around them requires a massive toxic cleanup and rebuilding effort that could last years.

A half-dozen said they are taking steps to clean up their properties, repair them and move back in for the long haul.

“I’m going to stay,” said Kathy Anton, a Dogwood Drive resident who lives there with both children and grandchildren. “I’ve been here for 41 years. And I love my house. I love it.”

When she moved into the neighborhood in 1976, a field was across the street from her new home. Within six months, there were houses. Today she looks out on rubble.

“And now I feel bad that my house is standing and my neighbors across the street, they have nothing,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking.”

Each neighbor can’t forget the moment of discovery when they learned whether they had a house or merely heaps of ash and twisted metal.

For Dennis Eriko, that came when he pedaled up on a borrowed bicycle to his Holly Park Way home on the afternoon of Oct. 9.

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“I was amazed to see the home was here, and I was shocked to see my neighbors’ houses had burned to the ground,” he said.

He and his wife, Nishi, were back at their home Tuesday, emptying a refrigerator reeking of fish that had spoiled after the power went out eight days earlier.

A few doors down and across the street, Dorothy Schroeder was looking around her home for a missing gray and white tabby named Rupert. A stone’s throw away a pair of National Guard members passed on foot.

Schroeder showed the damage to the side of her home, which scorched and wrecked windows, and the destruction to her neighbor’s property, from which a neighbor, a firefighting official, said other firefighters had to retreat.

“They tried to save this home, but it was so fully involved that they fell back to our house,” Shroeder said.

Her house stands because of the firefighters, she said. But she also credited her firefighting neighbor, who advised her before initially fleeing to go back inside and close all her windows “because it may save your house.”

Her husband and she did so, helping their home better withstand heat so intense it melted strips of vinyl inside her upstairs windows. A Cal Fire spokesman later said such radiant heat can ignite a home whose windows remain open.

As with the other neighbors, Schroeder and her husband plan to stay.

“This is our home,” she said. “What else are we going to do?”

As his brush spread stain over the redwood rails, Hibbard spoke dispassionately about the difficulty of selling a home like his now in a neighborhood with so much destruction.

“Nobody would buy it for its market value on Oct. 8,” he said.

He acknowledged possibly feeling some “survivors’ guilt.” And he suggested the neighbors whose homes still stand will pay an emotional price by living alongside a disaster zone.

“We’re going to see it every day when we drive to work and when we drive home,” he said.

But he predicted the destruction won’t be the final word for his neighborhood or his city. Toward that end, he brought a generator, camp stove, food and other items to an elderly neighbor staying without power at her home.

That act, he said, was one small way for him to “change the future.”

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 707-521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @rdigit.

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