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Special coverage

This story is part of a monthly series in 2018 chronicling the rebuilding efforts in Sonoma County’s four fire zones: Coffey Park, Fountaingrove, the greater Mark West area and Sonoma Valley. Read all of the Rebuild North Bay coverage here.

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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

In the fire-scarred neighborhoods of Sonoma County, some homeowners are watching the walls of their new homes go up. Others are staring at empty lots before work gets underway, or deciding whether to rebuild at all.

Across Sonoma County, nearly 5,300 homes burned, so the scale of each rebuilding plan and magnitude of those individual decisions adds up.

More than seven months after the fires, The Press Democrat asked residents whose homes were claimed by the disaster to share their advice and insights from the rebuilding process.

Joel Chandler and his wife, Tina, had lived in the Larkfield Estates neighborhood for 17 years. The fires destroyed their home and more than 700 others in the area.

Chandler, a general contractor, said the rebuilding process is hard on people who want to do the work themselves. His advice to other homeowners: Be proactive.

“You have to push. You have to constantly push. If you’re patient, you will get nothing. You have to be totally proactive in pushing what you want to happen. Even if you do that, it still takes months to make things happen.”

Despite uncertainty around septic and sewer service in the neighborhood, Chandler said he hopes to have a building permit in hand by the first week of June. Then, he said it's a matter of working “12 hours a day, seven days a week” to get his home rebuilt by the anniversary of the fires.

Hans Dippel lived with his family on Chateau Court in Fountaingrove. The winery supply salesman and former Santa Rosa City Council candidate said fear over rising costs and water contamination has pushed more of his neighbors to sell. He said his insurance coverage has given him time to make careful decisions.

His advice to homeowners who are rebuilding: Roll with the punches.

“As you go through the process, you’re going to hear one thing on a Monday, and things could change on a Tuesday. It’s not anybody’s fault, it just changed. Take what you know on Monday, but know that it could change on Tuesday. And don’t freak out that it changed. You definitely have to be flexible.”

Finding the right builder can be a challenge all in its own right. But for Larry and Carmen Kilcullen of Cross Creek Road in Fountaingrove, it was a natural choice.

Rod McCannell, the man who had originally built their home, agreed to take on their rebuild project. Kilcullen said settling that decision made the whole process easier.

“I think it’s important to make a decision and get going,” she said. “If you don’t want to build, then do something else. If you’re going to build, then get into it. Because that’s going to delay things, and if you delay things more and more, there’s going to be a problem.”

Tricia Woods, a teacher at Mark West Charter School, lost her home in Coffey Park. She received a building permit this week, and a contractor is poised to break ground. Woods said support from a neighborhood group has made all the difference as she rebuilds.

“Getting involved with Coffey Strong was the best thing I did after the fire,” Woods said of the neighborhood group. “As a single mom and middle school teacher, insurance claims and construction are not my areas of expertise.”

But neighbors shared their knowledge, and she plowed ahead.

“I feel lucky to have the support of such a tremendous community,” Woods said.

Jim Scally lost his home of 28 years on Crimson Lane in Coffey Park. Scally said the experience feels like a “full-time job that you don't really want.” Although the process is frustrating, he said it’s important to focus on the positive.

“We did great to escape,” Scally said. “We were 90 minutes trapped in our neighborhood, and our car almost caught on fire at one point. It was unbelievable. I’d say to be prepared on what, if anything, happens — what would you take? Be prepared for that. We thought we’d be coming back home. We didn’t think the house would burn down. Things do happen.”

He advised fellow fire survivors that recovery will be about more than just rebuilding.

“I think the emotional part of it is going to take a long time to heal,” he said. “Material things don’t matter, but it’s all the mementos and memories and things you can’t replace. That’s the hardest loss.”

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