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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

The Anderson family could not believe what they discovered when they returned to the ruins of their Fountaingrove home on Christmas Eve, planning to create some happy memories by putting up holiday decorations in a display of resilience that has spread through fire-ravaged neighborhoods across Sonoma County.

Beer cans, water jugs and sacks of discarded food wrappers were strewn across their blackened lot on Southridge Drive. A liquor bottle was left in the skeleton of their burned-out car.

They felt violated and couldn’t understand how someone could show such disregard for what, until three months ago, had been their cherished home.

“We were definitely caught off guard and it’s not what you expect to see when you return,” said Kristina Anderson, who lived in the house with her father, Roger. “It was definitely disheartening.”

Reports of illegal dumping have been sparse since the Oct. 8 wildfires, but neighborhood complaints have prompted authorities to step up patrols. In the unincorporated area of the county there have been seven complaints of illegal dumping in fire-ravaged areas, said Misti Harris, community engagement liaison for the Sheriff’s Office. About half were in the Larkfield/Mark West Springs area, where deputies began dedicated patrols last week in response to neighborhood feedback.

“This is certainly not a high number, but understandably painful for our community members,” Harris said in an email.

The large-scale recovery effort has provided ample opportunity for people to rid themselves of unwanted junk in burned-out neighborhoods, where vacant homes ensure few are watching.

Santa Rosa resident Michele Owen said her family’s condominium off Larkfield Maples Court along Old Redwood Highway has been victimized more than once. The first time an old toilet was tossed onto the scorched rubble where her grandmother and aunt had lived. A week later it was joined by an out-of-date flat screen television.

“To pull up and see a toilet, it’s so upsetting,” Owen said. “You still have memories of your house and a picture of it there, and people just throw garbage on it. You take it personally.”

Santa Rosa police said there have not been widespread reports of illegal dumping inside the city. However, city officials encouraged residents to report items discarded on their properties. The “My Santa Rosa” phone application is an easy way to submit details to multiple departments to get the issue logged and addressed, said Paul Lowenthal, the city’s debris task force leader. Property owners can also call Santa Rosa public works or local fire or police departments directly.

Ticketing someone for illegal dumping is difficult because it almost always requires catching the person in the act.

“Unfortunately illegal dumping happens, and it happens really quickly,” said Lowenthal. “There’s not typically much to go off of unless you set up a camera, so taking proactive measures is probably a good idea if it’s in an area where neighbors can work together.”

To raise awareness of the problem, Anderson used social media to post photos of the trash she found at her Fountaingrove home. She believes the trash was left there by someone partying in the remnants of countless family memories. Her Facebook post elicited hundreds of angry comments from fellow Sonoma County residents, many calling the behavior shameful, equating it to pouring salt in an open wound. Despite the continued disappointment, Anderson once again felt the support of her community.

“We got multiple offers from people to come clean it up,” she said. “That just shows how amazing Sonoma County is, and how great the people are in our county. Because even though it’s a disaster zone and it may look like trash, for those who lived through this and are still going back there, it’s still a home that holds a lot of memories to a lot of people.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or at kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com.

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