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Residents of Santa Rosa's Fountaingrove neighborhood return, vow to rebuild

Jim Finn looks for any bits of memorabilia among the ashes of his Rocky Point Way home on the first day Fountaingrove residents were allowed to sort through the ashes of their burned out homes. (photo by John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

PAUL PAYNE,

Jim Finn’s lavish home in the hills above Santa Rosa is gone. But his million-dollar view remains the same.

Sort of.

As the 60-year-old doctor walked the rubble Saturday of his Fountaingrove home — among the thousands in Sonoma County leveled by the most destructive wildfire in California history — he peered past charred treetops and other torched houses at a vista stretching clear to Sebastopol.

“It is a gorgeous view,” said Finn, who had lived in the 3,600-square-foot one-story home on Rocky Point Way since 2000. “That’s why I bought the house.”

Finn was among hundreds allowed to return Saturday to the devastated Fountaingrove area, which boasted some of the region’s most opulent homes but also included more modest condos and townhouses. Residents streamed back to see it all for the first time and hunt for prized belongings in the ashes.

A day earlier, residents of another neighborhood hit hard by the Tubbs fire, Coffey Park in west Santa Rosa, were permitted past police barriers. Altogether, about 6,800 structures — most of them homes — were lost in the blaze that claimed 23 lives in Sonoma County.

Tom Stekkinger, whose Vintage Circle home was reduced to dust and debris, came back Saturday with a friend to look for the wedding ring of his late wife, Dana. She died last year of breast cancer, leaving her husband and 8-year-old son, Jackson.

After searching in the area for an armoire where he’d kept it, Stekkinger’s friend discovered the keepsake coated in ash.

Stekkinger raised it high above his head as other neighbors cheered.

“That just made my day,” said Stekkinger, an IT manager, as he fought back tears. “It’s been a long road. We got kind of a double-whammy.”

Much of Fountaingrove was laid to waste by the flames that spread west from Calistoga across oak-studded hills into Santa Rosa. The wind-whipped inferno tore through Sky Farm — named for its breathtaking views — and along Fountain Grove Parkway, taking the new $4 million firehouse, a shopping center and ridgeline homes owned by some of the city’s most prominent residents.

Those coming back nearly two weeks later drove past blackened lawns and manzanita to find only foundations and charred mailboxes still standing. They pushed past melted patio furniture and twisted garage doors to dig for jewels and family heirlooms, settling for anything they could find.

Ron and Darlene Adams pulled into the driveway of their Rincon Ridge Drive home of 16 years to survey the devastation. Front steps led to a scorched archway with nothing but debris behind it. Their two burned Lexus cars sat in what was left of the garage. Darlene Adams pulled a metal cat sculpture from the rubble.

The retired couple vowed to rebuild.

“I told him this was a tough way to get new wood floors in the family room,” Darlene Adams joked.

A few streets away, on Rocky Point Way, Leo and Nan Cook also returned but with an army of relatives to help them find treasured items. Charred landscape boulders, a free-form pool and unobstructed views nearly to the ocean hinted at the grandeur that was lost.

Nan Cook, a retired social worker, also vowed to rebuild. She said the last time she saw her home was when she and her husband raced out the door with their seven pets the night of the fire. They made their way to a parking lot on Farmers Lane where they watched flames devour the hills.

“To think, I was almost going to leave the cats,” she said, standing near the driveway of her flattened home.

Fountaingrove Village shopping center, home to the popular Sweet T’s restaurant, a natural foods grocery store and a half-dozen smaller shops, was gutted in the blaze. The property owner, Lukhbir Gill, said increased construction costs since the center and 22 townhouses behind it were completed in 2008 cast doubt over whether it will be rebuilt. He offered the restaurant owners new space in another property he owns, Hotel La Rose in Railroad Square.

“They haven’t decided yet,” Gill said. “They don’t know what they’re going to do.”

Meanwhile, Finn, a cardiothoracic anesthesiologist, sifted through the ashes at his home and felt lucky to be alive.

He was sound asleep late on Oct. 8 when he was awakened by police officers pounding on his door. His house, where he lived alone, was filled with stifling smoke. He looked out a window and saw a line of cars fleeing down Fountain Grove Parkway. Up the street, he saw houses catching on fire.

He grabbed his cellphone, a laptop and ran out the door wearing only shorts and a T-shirt.

“I literally got out with my life,” Finn said.

On Saturday, he saw for the first time just how devastating the fire was. All but one of a dozen neighbors’ homes lay in ruins.

And Finn’s was reduced to rubble. Among the only things left standing was an old bay tree in his backyard that had scars from the last major wildfire that raged through the same area 53 years ago.

“It was always a reminder to me that it could happen again,” Finn said. “It was my greatest fear.”

As he looked at it, hummingbirds buzzed around an empty feeder hanging from a branch. Other birds chirped from a scorched oak nearby.

“They’re coming back,” said a friend, Cindy DeMoore, who walked the property with him. “It’s amazing. It’s a good sign.”

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 707-568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ppayne.