At night before silhouettes of burned evergreens, on ground newly cleared of ashes, May Salido and her three children set out a Christmas tree.
With two strings of solar-powered lights and a boxful of colored glass ornaments, the six-foot fir represents a new landmark. It shows where the family’s two-story house once stood in Coffey Park.
For Salido, Thursday night’s tree lighting amounted to a small step forward in a Santa Rosa neighborhood leveled by wildfire and undergoing a massive debris cleanup.
“It’s the first thing I put back on my lot,” Salido said. She stood on bare dirt and looked out to a darkened street where two behemoth excavators sat near her driveway, their bucket-like shovels resting on the asphalt.
It’s beginning to look a little like Christmas in Coffey Park.
A smattering of neighbors have placed trees, wreaths or signs on their burned lots. Meanwhile, some homes that remain standing in the area have busted out the outdoor lights and decorations.
An ornament-making party is scheduled for Sunday in the public park for which the neighborhood gets its name. And neighbors are talking on social media about expanding the outdoor decorations and bringing more encouragement to one another this holiday season.
Jeff Okrepkie, the board chairman of Coffey Strong, the newly named neighborhood rebuilding organization, said the informal efforts speak to hope and resilience. The outdoor Christmas trees, he said, proclaim “Hey, we’re still here. We’re going to be back, and we still have our neighborhood.”
Nearly two months have passed since wildfires destroyed more than 1,300 homes in Coffey Park, a compact collection of modest single-family homes at the north end of the city. In all, the fires killed 24 people and incinerated more than 5,000 homes in Sonoma County.
In Coffey Park, the smoke barely had cleared when neighbors started painting words of hope on streets and driveways. More recently a few messages have featured a holiday theme, including one painted slab of rusted metal that lies before a debris-laden lot. The sign, complete with two sets of hand prints, reads: “SANTA PLEASE USE THE FRONT DOOR.”
The thought of Christmas reminds many neighbors how much the fires consumed, Okrepkie said.
“It’s kind of opening up an old wound again,” he said.
Salido’s best friend, Tricia Woods, also lost her Coffey Park home. For her, looking ahead to Christmas brought up memories of destroyed holiday keepsakes, including items her children had made in grade school.
“It broke my heart to think of everything we had lost,” said Woods, a teacher at Mark West Charter School.
When she heard about neighbors’ plans to put Christmas trees on cleaned lots, she jumped at the chance.
“We can create a new memory,” she said.
On Tuesday, Woods and her three children placed a Christmas tree on their home lot on Hopper Avenue, an act captured by a videographer who came upon the tree lighting. On Thursday, Woods and two children joined Salido and her children at their lot for a second tree lighting.
“It feels more like my home now,” Salido said afterwards.
The two women hope more neighbors will place trees on their empty lots or put up exterior holiday lights on their standing homes. They said some neighbors plan to ask Christmas tree lots and farms to donate trees for the efforts.
Shelters for Pawnee fire evacuees
Lower Lake High School, 9430 Lake St., Lower Lake, is the official shelter established for people evacuating from the Pawnee fire. It is equipped to handle animals.
The Clearlake Oaks Moose Lodge, 15900 E. Highway 20, Clearlake Oaks, is not authorized by the Office of Emergency Services but is also sheltering fire evacuees, mostly people in campers and RVs who want their animals with them.
There is an authorized Lake County animal services station in an open field at Highway 53 and Anderson Ridge Road in Lower Lake.