Larkfield Estates, once a tranquil neighborhood of around 140 homes just a few minutes’ drive north of Santa Rosa, remains nearly unrecognizable four months after wildfire leveled every residence in sight and burned the subdivision’s lush greenery to a crisp.
But signs of progress are unmistakable: Lots have been cleared of debris, and at one site on Brighton Court, Joel and Tina Chandler are getting their land ready for reconstruction as soon as possible.
The couple never imagined their home of 17 years could be destroyed by wildfire — even when they fled in flip-flops as flames raged uncomfortably close in the early hours of Oct. 9. The Chandlers made sure the front door was locked when they left because they instinctively believed their home would survive.
The Tubbs fire spared only the pool, so now, like thousands of other Sonoma County residents, they’re starting anew. Since Joel Chandler is a general contractor, they’ve been able to move ahead with reconstruction faster than most. They were grateful for the headway.
“Best Valentine’s Day ever,” said Tina Chandler, standing on their street Feb. 15 and recalling the day before. “This is just the greatest feeling. I had tears of joy.”
In the aftermath of the disaster, Joel Chandler said he’s gotten to know many of their neighbors better than before as they’ve conferred about recovery. He enlisted help from a fellow Larkfield Estates resident who works as a land surveyor, and Chandler’s also planning to rebuild two of his neighbors’ homes in addition to his own.
The prospect of securing a building permit from the county and starting reconstruction is the next big benchmark for the Chandlers.“We finally feel like we’re heading the other way,” he said.
Block captains step forward
The Chandler home was one of nearly 740 residences destroyed in the greater Larkfield-Wikiup and Mark West Springs area, according to Sonoma County planning staff. The unincorporated area at the western foot of the Mayacamas Mountains was scorched during October’s fires. Half of the 24 people who died in Sonoma County lost their lives there.
“A blowtorch came out of that canyon that night,” said county Supervisor James Gore, who represents the area. “They said the fire was coming out of there with such ferocity that it was like a whip spraying left and right and just incinerating everything.”
Gore is the area’s lone elected official in local government, serving as a de facto mayor guiding the community’s recovery. He directed Larkfield-Wikiup and Mark West Springs residents to organize themselves into a coalition of “block captains” who now meet weekly with officials from the county and state or the Federal Emergency Management Agency and report back to their neighbors.
The system has been crucial to the recovery effort, residents say.
“I couldn’t imagine doing it without this,” said Mike Holdner, a block captain who lost his longtime home in Mark West Estates.
The idea was born out of Mark West and Larkfield-Wikiup town halls held in the days and weeks after the wildfires erupted. At the second such gathering, Gore showed up with a map and used markers to designate the vast region into five smaller locales: Michele Way, Mark West Estates, Larkfield Estates, Berrybrook and Wikiup. Gore asked neighbors to appoint leaders who were willing to follow up with him on a more regular basis.
On a rainy day a few weeks later, Gore met with a few of the new block captains over beers at the Vintners Inn. Toward the end of the discussion about the long recovery road ahead, Gore asked if they wanted to keep the conversation going on a more regular basis.
The answer was a resounding yes.
Now, about 14 to 18 people meet each Wednesday morning to speak directly with officials who are involved with some aspect of the recovery process, including county planning leaders and FEMA officials. The block captain network has expanded since its inception to include some representatives of Coffey Park, Gore said.
“It is by far the most inspiring thing that I’ve been a part of,” Gore said.
Solidarity on streets
When Barry Hirsch moved into the Michele Way house he built more than three decades ago, seclusion was part of the appeal. They could easily get to downtown Santa Rosa, but they loved the privacy of their rural refuge. They had a couple of neighbors they’d have dinner with maybe two to three times a year.
After the Tubbs fire claimed Hirsch’s home, and he became one of Gore’s block captains, everything changed.
“After the fire, especially getting involved in this block captain thing and communicating with these people, I’ve gotten to know a lot of them, which has been a silver lining,” Hirsch said. “I feel a sense of community that I really never felt before.”
The camaraderie has manifested in other forums, too.
A December tree-lighting ceremony at Molsberry Market — a Larkfield community hub where neighbors frequently bump into one another — saw its largest attendance ever, said Ron Calloway, the local school superintendent and Wikiup resident. And a New Year’s Eve party at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts attracted about 450 attendees, marking perhaps the largest community gathering in recent memory, according to Gore, who described the residents as having “a bond of family and friendship forged by fire.”
As they rebuild, some here are looking to make development changes where possible. Larkfield Estates residents are considering installing a sound wall to provide a buffer from traffic that has increased substantially after Sutter Santa Rosa Medical Center opened down the street, according to resident Brad Sherwood. Discussions are also ongoing about bringing sewer service to the septic-dominated neighborhood, improving the quality of the roads there, replacing burned trees with native vegetation, installing systems to reuse water for landscaping and more, according to Sherwood, a spokesman for the Sonoma County Water Agency.
“One great thing that’s come out of all of this is that neighbors have met each other, relationships have been built and we’re dreaming big,” Sherwood said.
You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @thejdmorris.