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Tubbs fire survivors prepare to move into new cottages in Fountaingrove

Estefani Cardenas marveled at the empty cottage in Fountaingrove that would soon become her new home after living couch-to-couch for nearly two years since the Tubbs fire.

Cardenas and her 2-year-old daughter, Mia, who was sporting bright pink sunglasses, walked wide-eyed through each of the small rooms of their new 750-square-foot cottage, taking it all in.

“I am already thinking about decorating our home for Halloween and what all we can do,” Cardenas said.

She lost her house on Hopper Avenue in the fires and is expected to move into the new cottage at the end of the month.

“This will be the first place my daughter and I will be living on our own,” she said.

Cardenas was one of nine families displaced by the 2017 fires and chosen by Habitat for Humanity to move into the newly constructed Sonoma Wildfire Cottages on the Fountaingrove campus of Medtronic, off Round Barn Boulevard.

Two years ago, when she ran from her smoke-filled home at around 3 a.m., all Cardenas said she was able to grab were her daughters’ clothes.

“I was only thinking about Mia, and didn’t take anything for myself or family mementos,” said Cardenas, her eyes filling with tears. In the larger Coffey Park area, more than 1,400 homes were lost to the Tubbs fire.

She went back to her destroyed home two weeks later.

“I couldn’t help but think about all the things I left behind that were gone,” she said.

On Friday, Cardenas, together with dozens of local leaders, another family that survived the fires and Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, celebrated the unveiling of the nine cottages, built around a shared gathering space, within about 45 yards of the Medtronic buildings.

“This project is an embodiment of resilience,” Thompson said to cheers. “It is through these cottages that we are able to provide housing to our community.”

The $2 million project was funded by donations from the Medtronic Foundation and Rebuild Wine Country, in addition to other fundraising efforts. It was the brainchild of Marianne Cusato, a professor of architecture at the University of Notre Dame. She first created cottages for survivors of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. She said the idea came to her after reading about shacks that were erected to temporarily house survivors of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

Each of the wildfire cottages was constructed with sustainable materials that are also disaster resistant, that Cusato said will last for decades, if not a century.

“We had to think differently about these because we needed them to be safe in case of another fire, minimalistic since they were smaller and sustainable,” she said. “We also had to remember that we were building a community, not just homes, and we wanted them to also have access to the outdoors to make them feel bigger.”

Santa Rosa Mayor Tom Schwedhelm said the cottages were both a powerful symbol and a real step forward in the effort to restore the city’s housing stock.

Schwedhelm, whose Coffey Park home survived the Tubbs fire, emphasized that recovery was a long road and that the Habitat for Humanity cottages were a heartening sight.

“It’s great to see that these cottages were not just talked about but that they actually became a reality,” he said. “I am seeing the rebuild process happen all around me, but to actually see these cottages and hear the stories of those moving into them, it is a reminder that we can overcome this.”

You can reach Staff Writer Alexandria Bordas at 707-521-5337 or alexandria.bordas@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @CrossingBordas.

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