‘Patience and frustration' in Sonoma Valley as as rebuild continues
Rebuilding is continuing to pick up in the Sonoma Valley communities hit hardest in the wildfires, Glen Ellen and Kenwood, where neighborhood gatherings and the bounty of replanted gardens are buoying residents' spirits.
In Glen Ellen, where 237 homes burned, construction is underway on 27 residences. Two miles to the north in Kenwood, where 139 homes were lost, work is underway on 29 residences. This marks an increase of five and nine homes, respectively, since Sept. 5, part of a continuing, if modest, trend that began in August.
Permit applications, a strong indicator of progress, are also up in the two neighborhoods. Builders filed applications to erect 63 homes in Glen Ellen and 46 in Kenwood, an increase of eight applications for both communities since Sept. 5.
So far, however, not one home has been completed in the valley, where 407 homes burned in all.
Celebrations of survival
With foundations being poured and framing going up, Valley communities marked the first anniversary of the wildfires with celebrations of survival.
Glen Ellen residents cheered as bulldozers and fire engines rolled in the parade at the annual Village Fair on Oct. 14. The previous week, fire survivors toasted with chardonnay at a firestorm remembrance block party on Oct. 9 on hard-hit O'Donnell Lane.
Residents of tight-knit Kenwood marked the anniversary by congregating at several locations in town, including the Kenwood Fire Department on Sonoma Highway, where VJB Vineyard & Cellars donated free pizza and salad.
Palooza Brewery and Gastropub, which served free beer and pizza to neighbors as the fire raged last year, offered free pizza all day. In the evening, it hosted a potluck dinner.
'We put out free pizzas and everyone brought food. The courtyard was full and everyone shared stories,' said Palooza manager Patrick Odenthal.
Litany of obstacles for rebuilders
Though the valley spirit is strong and activity is picking up, progress is hard-won for many reasons. Nearly all those who lost their homes are now familiar with a litany of obstacles to rebuilding.
The Army Corps of Engineers cleanup of O'Donnell Lane in Glen Ellen didn't take place until February, more than four months after the firestorm. Next came soil tests, then geological tests and structural engineering studies. Burned trees had to be removed, plans for new homes drawn up and approved.
'Have you got your permit yet?' has replaced 'How's it going?' for many valley residents.
Green thumbs get helping hand
As they struggle with the long, drawn-out process of rebuilding homes, many are rebuilding their gardens and flower beds, a much quicker process.
A riot of yellow, white and purple flowers grows at the front entrance of Marjorie Everidge's property on O'Donnell Lane, where she has lived since 1952. Sue Braito, a neighbor, has flowers and plants at the back of her property.
Steve Thomas and his husband, Mike Grace, replanted their garden after the Nuns fire destroyed the home they purchased on O'Donnell Lane just nine months earlier. Their garden has produced dozens of tomato plants, zucchini, yellow squash, green beans, eggplant, lettuce, carrots and beets — a bounty the couple have shared with their neighbors.
'I doubled the size of my garden because I felt like I'm not going to have (homebuilding) work to do anytime soon, so I might as well do this,' Thomas said.
Many of these efforts succeeded thanks to equipment donated by businesses to the Valley of the Moon Water District.
'We all called the district after the fire to say, 'I'm trying to save what's left of our landscaping,'' Thomas said.
When the homes burned, the water district turned off their water to prevent damaged plumbing systems from leaking. Eighty-five homes burned in the district's service area, which includes Glen Ellen but not the city of Sonoma. Rebuilt homes must have backflow devices, which prevent the supply of drinking water from being polluted.
'We had to have a backflow device and they were really expensive, around $1,000,' Thomas said. 'When all of us were calling (the district) was thoughtful enough to find someone to donate them.'
Daniel Muelrath, general manager of Valley of the Moon Water District, said the agency felt compelled to act.
'We didn't want to say, 'Sorry, you have to get a backflow device,' on top of everything (they were) going through,' he said.
The devices are mandatory for burned homes being rebuilt, and for certain other homes as well, he said. The district got 40 backflow preventers — a type of valve — from Wisconsin-based Zurn via Backflow Distributors of Sacramento, as well as pipes and fittings to connect the backflow devices to the water system from Friedman's Home Improvement.
While Thomas and Grace pursue rebuilding, they are renting a home in Glen Ellen. They also have a screened-in tent on their property.
Everidge, their neighbor, is renting a 402-square-foot cottage on O'Donnell Lane formerly used for vacation rentals. The owners converted it to a full-time rental for the fire survivors.
'The Glen Ellen people did an amazing job before and after the fire of taking care of their community. They re-housed most of the people in the community by themselves,' said Jennifer Grey Thompson, head of the Rebuild North Bay Foundation.
'A lot of people with vacation homes opened up their homes, a lot of people with ADUs (accessory dwelling units) opened up their homes,' she added. Existing 'granny units' or guest houses supplementing main residences have been pressed into service, and new ones are under construction.
As with many residents of the Valley, persistence has paid off for Thomas and Grace. Their permit was issued in September, and work started on the house at the end of the month.
'You just have to learn to be super-patient,' Thomas said. 'It's definitely been a lesson in patience and managing frustration.'