How survivors forged unexpected friendships after the 2017 wildfires
The North Bay firestorm claimed 40 lives and destroyed 6,187 homes. And yet, some good came of it. In rebuilding their lives, many survivors found an unexpected bounty: the friendships forged in the aftermath of the disaster - bonds stronger than many had known before Oct. 9, 2017.
“We've had so much loss and tragedy,” said a Coffey Park resident who lost her home of 30 years, “but we've gained so much emotionally.”
Bent, but not broken
Jim Scally is still mourning the 150-year-old oak tree he lost in the Tubbs fire that also claimed his house on Crimson Lane in Coffey Park.
“We bought the house because of that tree,” he said.
Having salvaged a section of its trunk, however, he intends to turn cuts of it into bar tables and other oak items, which he will give to friends. pla
“People will be saying, ‘Oh God, not another cheese tray from Scally,'” he predicted, with a grin, during a recent tour of the neighborhood.
Bar tables and cheese trays fall into a category Scally and his wife, LuAnn, have dubbed “upsides” - unlikely ways their lives have improved since the Tubbs fire laid them low.
For instance, Scally said, “All the sudden, we no longer needed to have a garage sale. And we can use all the profanity we want, and no one cares.”
Some upsides are more real than others. The gifts they value most can be counted during a slow ride around the neighborhood with Scally, who wasn't exactly a shrinking violet before the Tubbs fire.
After it, however, his circle of friends has expanded threefold, like the heart of the Grinch who stole Christmas.
“Hey Gary!” he shouts to a man spray-painting baseboards in his garage. Gary smiles and waves.
Heading south on Kerry Lane, Scally drives past the home of May Salido. On Dec. 8, 2018, the day she and her three children returned to Coffey Park, he welcomed them back, after introducing himself as “the Griswold guy.”
Some of Scally's renown comes from his custom of decking his house with more than 2,000 lights every Christmas, ala Clark Griswold in “National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation.”
“I know your house,” she said. He told her where she could get a deal on a storage shed. They've become friends.
Further south on Kerry, he parked the car and bounded out to embrace a woman standing in her driveway.
“Hello, dear friend,” said Pamela Van Halsema, who he met through neighborhood support group Coffey Strong, and who excitedly invited him in to see her nearly finished home. They chatted about light fixtures and tile backsplashes, and then things got real.
“This fire bent me the most I've ever been bent,” he shared with her. “But I'm thankful, 'cause it forced me to really look at my life.'”
The staggering material losses of the fire survivors have a psychological parallel inside them.
“Not only has their physical life been rebuilt,” said Doreen Van Leeuwen, a Santa Rosa-based marriage and family therapist, “but they are being rewired neurologically from this experience.”
The defenses victims had built up, the masks they wore to represent themselves, were suddenly removed.
“They've been forced to recreate themselves,” she said. “I think that's why some people are more open” to authentic communication, genuine friendships, and, well, hugs.
“C'mere, give me a hug,” Van Halsema said, when the tour was over.
Aside from making new friends, Scally has forged stronger bonds with old ones. His 2006 Dodge Charger, parked on Crimson Lane the night of the fire, somehow survived unscathed. A neighbor's son always had coveted that ride. So, a couple months after the blaze, Scally gave it to him.
“It made him feel incredible, and I've gotten to know that family a lot better,” he said. “That's just how the neighborhood operates.”
So it is. A month or so ago, some anonymous benefactor left in his front yard a 15-gallon pot containing a live oak tree.
More than just a porch
On a calm, cool Thursday night six adults and two kids gathered by the new porch of a house on Flintwood Drive, grown folks chatting over sips of beer and wine and the youngest child flitting around the front of the Hidden Valley home.
Neighbors here gathered before the fires, but at block parties, not on verandas or stoops. Over the course of the ongoing rebuild, many in the area have decided to add front porches to their new homes, offering a place for friends and neighbors to congregate, other than driveways and roads.
Tracy Condron, daughter of former city mayor Janet Condron, used to live nearby in Fountaingrove and was accustomed to jogging through the hilly Santa Rosa neighborhood.
When her home burned down in the Tubbs fire, the choice to move to Hidden Valley was made easier by the warmth she felt from residents at an early rebuild gathering.