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Homecoming in Oakmont brings relief to evacuated residents

Sunday night is the first time in a week that Sue Hattendorf will have slept in a bed — her own bed — rather than a camp cot or a car seat.

“All week all I could think of is, ’God, if I could only go home and sleep in my own bed,’” the 87-year-old Oakmont resident said Sunday evening, hours after authorities lifted the evacuation order in the east Santa Rosa senior living community. “I made it. I’m here.”

Relief, gratitude and a strong sense of shared community spirit permeated the stories of Oakmont residents who were allowed to return to their homes Sunday afternoon. Following an alert from city officials around 3 p.m. that Oakmont was reopened, residents quickly began streaming back into the community, eager to attend to plants, spoiled food and smoky indoor air that had all been left to stagnate for a week.

The 5,000 residents of Oakmont were among the last to return home Sunday eight days after wind-driven flames burned from the Napa Valley to the eastern boundaries of Santa Rosa, forcing nearly 34,000 people in Sonoma County to flee under mandatory evacuation orders.

Janelle and Greg Julotta said they had anticipated a worse aroma and mess than they encountered Sunday when they stepped inside their home on Fairfield Drive. Though their power had been out for several days, Janelle said the melted ice from the freezer hadn’t leaked all across the kitchen floor, for example.

“It doesn’t smell as bad as we were expecting,” she said. “It smells like a campfire.”

Janelle had tried to schedule an appointment with carpet cleaners even while the couple and their two dogs were evacuated over the past week, staying with family in Rohnert Park. The cleaners wouldn’t set a date until the evacuation orders were lifted, she said.

Out back, where the Julottas’ property abuts part of the Valley of the Moon golf course, her husband, Greg, found another pleasant surprise: the seven fish that populate their small pond had all survived.

“I told my wife, ’I bet it’ll kill the fish,’” he said, watching as their vibrant orange shapes approached the water’s surface to gulp down the food he threw to them. Earlier, Greg had scooped chunks of dead cinders and ash out of the pond.

Not all of the return stories to Oakmont are happy ones, however. Just a street over from the Julotta’s home, on White Oak Drive, the charred remains of a triplex could be seen behind the caution tape spanning the driveway. The structure was destroyed by flames.

The drive along Highway 12 offered other grim reminders of the fire’s furious march. Multiple rows of vines in the Westwood Annadel Gap Vineyard had been left scorched, a rust-and-ashy contrast against the foliage of vines that were spared. Even as residents’ cars began to trickle down the road, multiple Pacific Gas & Electric crews were repairing damaged power poles and hoisting lines along the shoulder.

Other sights, though, captured critical moments in the firefight that could have cost families much more. Further south, heading toward Kenwood, multiple sections of wooden fences flanking Highway 12 were gone — revealing to passing drivers several houses that appeared unburnt behind. At one property, a plastic swing for a child still hung from a tree; at another, garden boxes were intact.

“I learned a lot,” said Lindy Hahn of her time being evacuated over the past week. She not only added to the list of things she needs to keep in her “go bag,” she said, but she also learned how much respite from anxiety her faith in God could provide her in a tough situation.

“I just feel bad for people suffering with worry,” she said.

Hahn expressed her gratitude to fire crews that worked diligently to save as many structures as possible during an intense firefight that started in the night of Sept. 27.

“Look at what they did,” she said. “They saved us.”

A line of cars formed at the Central Recreation Complex in Oakmont across from the Wells Fargo bank Sunday afternoon, where residents were requesting help from PG&E workers staged nearby to turn on the gas to their homes.

The gravity of the situation that evacuees had survived weighed heavy on some of their minds. The Julottas said they’ve already been exploring other places to move to. Between the rolling blackouts during the summer and their eventual evacuation, their exasperation was clear.

“We will probably not retire here,” Janelle said. “It’s not worth what you pay to live here. I shouldn’t have to have a generator as part of my life here.”

At the same time, she said, in the wake of the Glass fire, “I’m so grateful that this is all we have to deal with. Smelly soot.”

The Julottas moved to their Oakmont home just three years ago. For someone like Hattendorf, who has lived in her home for 20 years, thoughts about her long-term future lingered more in the back of her mind as she unloaded her car Sunday.

Hattendorf is heavily involved in Oakmont, from leading the Citizens Organized to Prepare for Emergencies group to providing free income tax services to residents. She likes to be busy, she said, and hasn’t yet thought of a place where she would prefer to live.

“I’ve been pleased with the life I’ve lived here,” she said. “Other than this.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kaylee Tornay at 707-521-5250 or kaylee.tornay@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ka_tornay.

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