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.
Read all of the PD's fire coverage here