COFFEY PARK — The homes are gone, but Coffey Park was once again a neighborhood.
Couples walked their dogs down the sidewalks. Neighbors passing in cars rolled down the windows and waved. People took a break from the back-breaking work sifting through ash and burned rubble to pull down face masks and reconnect with anyone familiar.
One man walked down Dogwood Drive handing out cans of Lagunitas pale ale.
“It’s been so hard not knowing how everyone is doing,” said Rick Merian, 59, who has lived on Dogwood Drive since 1986. “You don’t have everyone’s addresses or phone numbers. You’re used to seeing your neighbors out on the street.”
Friday morning, the city of Santa Rosa allowed Coffey Park residents to return to their properties, officially reopening the neighborhood to them for the first time since the early hours of Oct. 9 when they fled their homes by the thousands as embers from a raging firestorm rained down. The city also allowed residents of the Journey’s End mobile home park and the Orchard manufactured home community to return.
The scene will be repeated this morning, when the city allows residents of Fountaingrove to visit their homes in the hillside community.
The fire, which ignited in Calistoga and burned a destructive path across miles of rural wooded neighborhoods and into the city, leapt over Highway 101 and burned an estimated 1,300 homes in the dense city neighborhood, sparing very few.
The r-eentry marked an important step for many people to begin searching the charred rubble for even the tiniest mementos before allowing the long cleanup and reconstruction process to begin. While many people had slipped through checkpoints and seen the destruction, the neighborhood had been heavily guarded while emergency personnel looked for human remains and secured utilities. Friday was the first day their properties felt like theirs again.
“People are seeing their neighbors for the first time. There has been a lot of hugging,” Santa Rosa Police Chief Hank Schreeder said.
Huge sections of Sonoma County remain under evacuation orders from Larkfield to Glen Ellen with thousands of residents still waiting to return to their properties — with homes standing or not.
Sonoma County sheriff’s spokeswoman Misti Harris said it could take weeks for some areas to be reopened while 10 different agencies coordinate to ensure they are safe.
“It’s massive, to make sure the obvious safety hazards in the public areas are fixed and removed,” Harris said.
A few hundred yards from Coffee Park, divided by a large brick wall and train tracks, residents also returned to the Orchard, a community for adults over the age of 55. Unlike the massive police operation to move hundreds of cars into Coffey Park, just a handful of police and volunteers checked people in and handed out supplies.
Most homes were unscathed by the fire, but dozens were leveled by the blaze. Singed apple trees and lawn ornaments stood at the corner of Cherry Blossom Drive and Plum Tree Lane where a few residents looked through the remains of their homes.
At checkpoints set up around the Coffey Park perimeter Friday morning, people showed proof of residency and police handed out paper passes allowing access. The line of vehicles proceeded to a second stop where National Guard soldiers handed out buckets of safety gear — rubber and leather gloves, masks, water, wet wipes and a trash bag to throw it all in when they leave.
By about 3:30 p.m. Friday, more than 1,300 people had returned, Schreeder said. Police allowed only residents, public safety workers, religious leaders, media and volunteers into the neighborhood. The area will remain off limits to the general public for at least a week; the city announced late Friday that it would extend controls on public access through Oct. 29, at least, based on feedback from residents.
The city brought in food trucks and portable bathrooms to Coffey Park, a green grass expanse in the middle of near total destruction.
Wearing masks, gloves and rubber boots, the neighborhood of teachers, truck drivers, nurses, and retail workers sifted through rubble. A woman found the china saucers she inherited from her grandmother. People collected the fragile remains of wedding announcements, baby books and newspaper clippings.
A man called out with delight when he found his wife’s wedding ring — she was still in the hospital after giving birth to their daughter Wednesday — and everyone in the area stood up from their work and cheered.
A family huddled in grief after finding the remains of their dog.
People rubbed their temples to lessen the persistent smoke and ash headaches.
The street signs were gone but road identifiers were scrawled in white spray paint on the pavement: Santiago, Pine Meadow and San Miguel.
Nicholas and Dana Celovsky, pastors with Thrive Church, stopped by Kerry Lane where a family was picking through the burned rubble of their home of 13 years.
“This was a beautiful neighborhood,” said Tigist Andebrhan, who works as a custodian at the Santa Rosa Junior College. She talked about how difficult it was to know her teenage daughters lost everything.
“I had a beautiful childhood here,” said Nicholas Celovsky, who grew up on Dogwood Drive.
People recounted the terrifying night when the fire blew into the neighborhood, forcing people out of their beds to pound on neighbors’ doors. They helped when garage doors wouldn’t open. They lived through that night together.
They lost three neighbors: Valerie Evans, 75, on Coffey Lane; Carol Collins-Swasey, 76, on Hemlock Street and Karen Aycock, 56, on Dogwood Drive.
By the time Michelle and Vincent Poggi knew they had to abandon their home on Astaire Court, there was bumper-to-bumper traffic heading out of the neighborhood. So they walked the five miles to an evacuation site at the Finley Center.
Returning Friday with their adult daughters, with homes intact in Sacramento and another part of Santa Rosa, Poggi said she takes solace that their children were spared the loss of their homes and belongings.
“I’m not trying to salvage anything except for memories,” said Michelle Poggi, director of student outreach at Santa Rosa Junior College.
On Kerry Lane, Frank Jekabsons, 65, sat on the open back of his hatchback van, on a break from searching for mementos with his niece, her husband and children.
Behind the wheel of her car, Jacquie Irish pulled up to the Jekabsons, rolled down the window and called out: “Didn’t you have those pretty purple flowers?”
“Yep, take a clipping if you’d like,” said Jekabsons, laughing at the crisp remnants of his niece’s garden.
Many residents said they had already lined up a contractor to rebuild. Some said they had signed a lease on a long-term rental or were living out of hotels. They had fielded calls and meetings with insurance companies, FEMA, the DMV, work, school, and handled an endless list of logistics.
A sign hung on a burned tree: “We will be back. Better! Stronger!”
Some things didn’t burn. Park play structures. A white cross marking the place at Dogwood Drive and Coffey Lane where a 21-year-old man died in a motorcycle crash 10 years ago — where neighbors said his family gathers in his memory each year, and hope to see again.
Mike and Denise Peterson picked through melted coins from a pocket change jar in what was once their bedroom, and they laughed at finding a nearly intact dollar bill. There was never any question about whether they would rebuild their home in the neighborhood where they raised two children.
“Every time we see a neighbor, we say, ‘Thank god you are alive,’” Denise Peterson said.
“I catch myself feeling depressed ... but we have to focus on the future,” Mike Peterson said.
For up-to-date information on evacuation and re-entry areas visit https://tinyurl.com/centrallnuevacs
Staff Writer Nick Rahaim contributed to this story. You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @jjpressdem.