Rebuilding after the fires: Larkfield residents ponder joint construction efforts

The first homes on burned lots started going up in Larkfield, residents are planning joint rebuilding efforts and a series of community meetings highlighted recovery challenges as Little League teams returned to ballfields. Here's a recap of key events in the greater Mark West area in March:

Cleanup in its final stages

As of Monday, Sonoma County planning officials had issued nearly 50 rebuilding permits related to the October wildfires in the unincorporated areas. County planning data shows more than half of those permits are in the Mark West Springs corridor, which includes Larkfield-Wikiup. The figure includes homes, garages, bridges and decks destroyed or damaged by the fires in the area, where nearly 740 homes were lost five months ago.

The government-sponsored debris removal program in the area is 'virtually done,' said Nancy Allen, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Allen said Monday just 12 more properties needed to be cleaned in the Tubbs fire burn zone, including two in Fountaingrove and one in Larkfield.

'Most of these were inaccessible,' Allen said. 'A bridge burned or the road was in such bad shape so we couldn't get in in our trucks ... There were some access issues that had to be addressed before we could get to these remaining properties.'

With the debris cleanup in its final stages, rebuilding is slowly beginning to pick up some steam. On the fire-scarred lowlands of Larkfield-Wikiup, workers this month poured the foundation for the new home of Jim Dickey and his wife, Megan Basinger. Dickey, a local land surveyor, said his firm has surveyed nearly 50 fire-ravaged parcels in Larkfield Estates alone, and a total of more than 330 countywide.

'It's rewarding, but it's hectic as well,' Dickey said, who anticipates his Dorchester Drive home being rebuilt by the end of this year.

'I now get a few hundred more emails every day than I'm used to. We're doing what we can to keep everybody moving forward, helping with the rebuild effort in whatever way we can.'

Southern California builder

A group of residents who lived in two scorched neighborhoods in Larkfield-Wikiup are hoping to hasten their community's recovery by using the same company to rebuild many of the homes they lost.

Orange County-based Stonefield Cos. has already made arrangements to construct nearly 80 homes in Mark West Estates north of Santa Rosa and is in discussions with Larkfield Estates property owners about a similar group rebuilding effort.

Site regrading and recompacting in Mark West Estates was supposed to start earlier this month but was put 'on standby' pending drier weather, a company spokesperson said.

Despite the delay, the company says it's still on track to begin home construction in May, with the first move-ins anticipated this fall, weather permitting. The company has completed three similar efforts before, having rebuilt numerous homes in Southern California following destructive wildfires there in 2003, 2007 and 2008.

Stonefield executives declined interview requests but said in a statement through a spokesperson they are 'honored to be able to assist Sonoma County' by embarking on the company's fourth group rebuild in the last decade and a half.

Rebuilding 'by sheer force of will'

Mike Holdner, one of the Mark West Estates owners who helped bring Stonefield into the picture, said he started cold calling home builders about a week after the firestorm ignited, asking if they wanted to lead a group rebuild of his neighborhood. But the project didn't make sense financially for builders more accustomed to buying land and constructing brand-new subdivisions from the ground up.

Then another Mark West Estates homeowner's friend who was familiar with Stonefield's work in Southern California connected the neighborhood with the company.

Because Holdner's employer, Keysight Technologies, had given him free reign to focus on the fire recovery for a while, he had already compiled a trove of detailed information about Mark West Estates. Holdner and his son used Google Maps to identify which of the five neighborhood floorplans were used by each of the nearly 180 homes in the subdivision, and he also acquired from county planning officials another trove of data about the houses.

So by the time he met with Stonefield, Holdner said he was able to 'dump a massive amount of information about what we used to have,' he said. He remains optimistic that Stonefield will get the first homes rebuilt by later this year, although he's prepared for the project to hit some inevitable speed bumps.

'I tell them by sheer force of will, we're rebuilding it. And I got enough will to get it done,' he said. 'We're gonna hit some pitfalls in there somewhere, and we'll just overcome them.'

Holdner never doubted he would rebuild at his address of 17 years: It's the only home his 11-year-old son has ever known.

'That was the house we took him home to after the hospital,' Holdner said. 'I think for him, just from an emotional stability standpoint, for him to go back to the same neighborhood and have his house in place is important. But mostly, I like my house — I want it back.'

Community gatherings

Larkfield Estates residents gathered March 9 for an informal meet-and-greet with state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg. More than 100 people turned out for the gathering at Riebli Elementary School, according to Brad Sherwood, who lost his Larkfield Estates home in the fires.

Sherwood, a spokesman for the Sonoma County Water Agency, said the meeting was 'fantastic.'

'For probably the first 45 minutes, he just listened to stories of how people escaped the fire from the neighborhood,' Sherwood said. 'Similar stories of how there were no warnings, people relied on each other to knock on doors to become aware of the fire.'

A broader swath of the Larkfield-Wikiup and Mark West Springs area attended the county's latest rebuilding town hall Wednesday evening, where numerous residents heard recovery updates from officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Army Corps and county staff members.

Pacific Gas & Electric Co. continues to bring power back to the area as well. Workers were set to power up a four-pole temporary overhead power installation in the Redwood Hill Road area Saturday if weather permitted, according to PG&E spokeswoman Deanna Contreras. Similarly, the Carriage Lane and Carriage Court area in Wikiup is set to be powered up Sunday with 16 poles, 10 transformers and eight LED streetlights — also weather permitting, Contreras said.

And despite the devastation still eminent throughout much of the area, the community was preparing to herald one if its proud annual traditions Saturday morning with the opening day of the local Little League at the baseball diamonds on Lavell Road. It's an annual tradition that draws a legion of youth baseball players in uniform along with their parents and siblings.

Typically, there's not a parking spot to be found by 7:30 a.m., said Ron Calloway, the superintendent of the Mark West Union School District and a Wikiup resident.

'Opening day of Little League in our community is a big experience here,' Calloway said. 'It's just a good time ... Tradition and a sense of normalcy.'

You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or On Twitter @thejdmorris.

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