Coffey Park sat empty this Halloween, the neighborhood a ghostly no-man’s land with scorched chimneys and ash heaps masquerading as homes. No candy. No costumed kids.
Among the ruins lay the 5,000-square-foot custom house known among neighbors as “The Castle,” where in past Halloweens owner Dan Schieberl had dressed in full armor while his wife, Christine, and children in full costumes passed out candy to hundreds of children.
The trick-or-treaters would pass by a small stone-carved dragon, which served as a mailbox pedestal, and enter grounds festooned with witches, pirate skeletons or a werewolf.
The day after Halloween many of Coffey Park’s elementary school students at last returned to class after more than three weeks off. But it wasn’t to their neighborhood Schaefer Elementary School, which remained closed from concerns about its proximity to toxics lurking among 1,300 burned homes.
Instead, many of Schaefer’s 420 students went to one of three other campuses more than a mile away within the Piner-Olivet school district. Officials have yet to release how many Schaefer students returned for classes in the district.
The blow to a beloved holiday tradition and the temporary closure of the neighborhood campus presented parents and children with new reminders of how much life has changed in the northwest Santa Rosa neighborhood. Even as the parents grieve, they are trying to help their children cope after the fire.
“I lost my routine and my security,” said Andrea Meyers, whose Monticello Court home burned in last month’s fire. She and her husband, Jason, now are trying to keep life as normal as possible for their daughters, Scotlynd, 12, and Ella, 8.
Almost four weeks have passed since wildfires claimed 23 lives and consumed 7,000 structures in Sonoma County. In the center of Coffey Park, the inferno leveled every home in a blockswide strip that runs three-quarters of a mile, from near Piner Road almost to the northern city limits.
For Schaefer parents, the children’s return to class was an important step toward normalcy. The students were the last in the county to return after the fires.
“My kids need to be with their friends,” said Steven Lee, standing outside Olivet Elementary School Wednesday morning after dropping off his twin Schaefer first-graders, Aaron and Amanda, for the first day back to classes.
The Lee family’s Banyon Street home survived, but staying in a hotel after the fire tended to make both children and adults stir-crazy, he said.
But there was relief, like last week when Schaeffer first-grade teachers held an informal gathering of their students in a city park.
There was the large carnival Monday that community volunteers and the Boys & Girls Club hosted at Jack London Elementary, and activities and treats Tuesday downtown around Old Courthouse Square.
In families that lost homes, parents are helping their children understand that while they experienced something horrific, family and friends will be there for them going forward.
“I think the big thing is to communicate that we’re all hurting, but we all have to work together,” said Billy Andre, pastor of The Bridge church in Santa Rosa, whose Randon Way home was destroyed in the fire.
Andre shared how his wife, Elissa, borrowed a plate with the inscription “You Are Special” — exactly like the one the family used to have at home for children’s birthdays. The Andres took it with them to a local IHOP and had pancakes served on it for their son Peyton’s 14th birthday.
Later that day the family went to their burned homesite and found the Andres’ wedding rings. As the couple wept, their three children, including daughter Loriella, 16, and son Luke, 11, joined their parents in a group hug.
“This has brought us closer together,” Andre said.
You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 707-521-5285 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @rdigit.