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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.

John Thill’s loss in the October firestorm was twofold: He lost his home in Coffey Park and his business on Mark West Springs Road.

Then he suffered a third blow in February, when about $3,000 worth of tools were stolen from a trailer he set up at the site of his burned business, John’s Auto Body.

Thill says he had to dip into his own pocket to replace the stolen items, including a brand-new 20-inch steel chainsaw and a floor jack that was still in the box. He was using the tools to do a little work out of some tents he set up on the property where his auto shop once stood — an effort now made even more difficult by the burglary.

“I just don’t understand how someone can be that low,” Thill said. “I look at it as like I tripped over something, fell down and skinned my knees, and now I gotta put some Band-Aids on them, stand back up and get going again. And that’s all I’m trying to do, and then somebody comes by and does something like that.”

Fear of thefts add to difficulties

Thill isn’t alone. The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office says his case is likely related to a string of other burglaries in the greater Larkfield-Wikiup and Mark West Springs burn zone that law enforcement reported in early May. The other incidents targeted trailers storing construction equipment for workers rebuilding homes destroyed in the Tubbs fire that ravaged the unincorporated community north of Santa Rosa more than seven months ago.

When the burglaries were first reported, Sheriff Rob Giordano promised to investigate them “to the full extent” and staff extra patrols around the rebuilding sites. The burglaries were “completely unacceptable,” Giordano said in a statement.

Thill said he thought he had an idea of who may have stolen his belongings, and he identified a potential suspect to the Sheriff’s Office. But the lead “didn’t pan out” when deputies followed up, Sgt. Spencer Crum said in an email.

For now, Thill’s case is “suspended due to lack of leads,” according to Crum. But Sheriff’s officials are still trying to find the person or people responsible for the burglaries reported earlier this month, which alarmed property owners in the area and prompted fears of even more burglaries as the rebuilding process ramps up.

“While we have minimal leads to go on, the property crimes detectives are still working on them,” Crum said in the email. “We can’t really talk about what we are doing because we don’t want to let the criminals know our tactics.”

For Thill, the burglary added another layer of difficulty to his life, because he now feels the need to bring his tools back and forth between the trailer where he’s living in Windsor and his business. He’s trying to do some work, but it’s been “really tough,” he said.

“It’s harder than I ever imagined it would be — I thought that I could just set up a couple tents and start doing some work,” Thill said. “Since I’ve been broken into, now I have to load everything up at night, take it all home with me and then bring it back the next day and unload it to get doing and get the work done. It’s just terrible.”

Considering security, sewer service

Among the others affected by the burglaries were workers hired by Silvermark Construction Services, a Fairfield-based company that’s now looking to rebuild 12 homes in the Larkfield area, most of them purchased from fire victims who didn’t want to rebuild themselves. Workers in May found numerous tools were missing, including a compressor and a pipe threader, leading to thousands of dollars in losses.

David Hosking, the Silvermark’s vice president of operations, said the company had already made its equipment storage more secure, and contractors are considering doing even more.

“We are talking about more of a combined security for the area ... getting a security person there,” Hosking said. “But no one’s moved on it.”

The stolen equipment delayed the company’s work a day and a half at most, but the projects are moving full steam ahead now, he said, estimating the company’s first rebuilt house in the Berry Brook neighborhood would be complete by mid-June. After that, the company aims to finish one house each week, according to Hosking.

So far, Sonoma County officials have issued 96 rebuilding permits for single-family homes and granny units in Mark West Springs and the area outside Windsor, which includes Larkfield-Wikiup. Some 740 homes were lost when the Tubbs fire tore through the unincorporated community in October.

In the coming weeks, the Board of Supervisors is expected to take a up another key rebuilding issue that was previously the source of much debate in the community: whether to extend sewer service into the scorched Larkfield Estates subdivision, where homeowners were previously connected to septic systems.

The Sonoma County Water Agency has come up with a financing plan for homeowners who wish to connect to the sewer system already running nearby as part of the rebuilding process. Connection to the system would be voluntary, so homeowners who wish to stay on septic, as some have said they do, won’t have to connect or pay for the sewer.

Supervisors are slated to consider the agency’s proposed financing plan at their next regular meeting June 5.

You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or jd.morris@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @thejdmorris.

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