A milestone for Santa Rosa’s fire-ravaged Fountaingrove: First rebuilt home
Tom Francois has lost a great deal in his life: his right leg was amputated below the knee in 2001 after complications with blood clots; his beloved wife, Carol, died in 2014 after a battle with lung cancer; and flames destroyed his Fountaingrove home Oct. 9.
About 11 months after Tubbs fire leveled his Sonterra Court home, the 77-year-old will be the first in Santa Rosa’s Fountaingrove area to have a home rebuilt and ready for occupancy, contractors say.
It marks a personal triumph for Francois and a milestone for the Fountaingrove area, where rebuilding activity has lagged behind most other areas of Sonoma County.
“It’s been a grind from when it first happened to where it is now. I’m just so blessed to have people like Sonoma County Builders,” Francois said of the Santa Rosa company that’s rebuilding his home and nine others in Fountaingrove.
The Tubbs fire destroyed more than 1,400 homes in the hillside area in northeast Santa Rosa. But complications presented by debris removal, the hilly terrain and water contamination issues stemming from the fire have slowed rebuilding, said David Guhin, Santa Rosa’s planning and economic development director.
In Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park area, for example, where more than 1,200 homes were lost, the first rebuilt home was completed in May and last month nearly 400 homes in the neighborhood were under construction, more than double the activity in Fountaingrove.
Sonoma County Builders, a general contracting company that began building homes after October’s fires, will be presenting a Sept. 15 open house and ribbon-cutting to showcase Francois’s new home, along with two others that will be ready for occupancy shortly after, said Eric Keith, the company’s chief operating officer.
Keith’s father, Ed Keith, then the superintendent for Cobblestone Homes, developed the 65-home Miramonte subdivision that includes Francois’ home. His sons are rebuilding homes there using plans from the original development, which was finished in 1999.
Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane will present Francois with a house key at the ceremony.
“It inspires other people who are still feeling stuck. … I think everyone just needs some inspiration right now. We’re not just rebuilding homes, we’re rebuilding lives,” she said.
In a tribute to his wife of five decades, the Santa Rosa Junior College assistant baseball coach requested his 1,883-square-foot home be constructed in an almost identical fashion to the one they owned since 1998. He left for the final time at 3 a.m. Oct. 9 with only a pair of shorts, a pullover and his wallet, leaving behind years of photos and mementos.
“I lived in that house for three years before the fire without her, and it was so easy because the memories were there,” he said. “The hardest part becomes the little things we had there together, the pictures, the photos, the memories. There are so many things I miss about her that are not just material things. … The memories are tender and cherished, and that’s why it’s important to rebuild. The house is a reminder she’s still with me.”
Francois was a teenager when he met Carol at a restaurant in San Francisco in 1959. He was drinking a soda alone when she walked in with a mutual friend, and they spent the rest of the day dancing to Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis records at his house. They married in 1962.
He still wears his wedding ring.
His new home will be have special touches such as crown molding, French doors and granite counter tops, he said, because Carol would have loved them.
He plans to move in by late October, when the lease on the duplex he rents near the Santa Rosa Junior College is up. Seeing his new home completed will be a “joyous day” for Francois, who described himself as a “big-time crier.”
“I did not shed one tear when the house burned down,” he said. “It was surreal for me; it wasn’t denial, but it was just ‘Man, did this really happen?’ As far as emotional impact, it was just bizarre. … Being a part of the growth and watching the thing in construction, from foundation to framing to the lighting and all the other stuff that goes on with construction, was very exciting.”
Ed Keith, who lived for years in the subdivision, reached out to Francois the day after the fires swept through, offering condolences, Francois said. Francois knew he wanted to rebuild, and the process was set in motion. The foundation for the three-bedroom, three-bathroom home was started May 5.
Flames destroyed 57 of the homes in the subdivision, but signs of life in the neighborhood offer hope, Eric Keith said. His company is building nine homes in the subdivision and another on Vintage Circle. All exist outside the zone where water contamination issues emerged after the fires, affecting service pipes leading to more than 200 homes.
“It means a lot - I think a lot of people have psychologically given up, and a lot of people are moving,” Keith said. “I know several people who said they don’t have time for this and move out of the area, but to see homes starting to come online is a big boost.”
In Fountaingrove, 192 permits have been issued to rebuild homes, said Steve Jensen, manager of Santa Rosa’s Resilient City Permit Center. Of those, 122 homes are under construction, while 70 permits have been issued for homes where construction has yet to begin. The city is in the process of reviewing another 129 applications, he said.
You can reach Staff Writer Hannah Beausang at 707-521-5214 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @hannahbeausang.