Rebuilding Sonoma County: Greater Larkfield area marks milestones, new beginnings
Nancy Thiele initially thought the Larkfield home she lost in the Tubbs fire would be rebuilt by mid December.
But thanks to the determined work of her contractor, a family friend, Thiele and her husband moved into the new house on their Oxford Court property on Oct. 6 - two days before the first anniversary of the disaster that changed their lives.
“Everything just seemed to fall in place,” she said.
The Thieles are the first Tubbs fire survivors from the Larkfield Estates subdivision to move back into a completed house. And if the walls and roofs going up around them are any indication, they will soon be joined by several others, as the flat neighborhoods around Old Redwood Highway and Mark West Springs Road continue to be one of the fastest-moving parts of Sonoma County’s overall fire recovery.
Thiele said her neighbors still come around often to check on the progress of their own rebuilding efforts, and the noisiest construction generally happens while she and her husband are at work.
Being back in Larkfield Estates is a great relief to Thiele, who had previously been commuting roughly an hour from Hidden Valley Lake to work at Piner High School. She was also glad to be back home in time for the one-year mark.
“I had a hard time leading up to the anniversary date. The week before I was struggling with it, but then once it got here, it didn’t bother me as much as I thought it was going to,” Thiele said. “I think it’s because we were back in the house. It was a good thing.”
Thiele joined numerous neighbors and others from around the greater Larkfield-Wikiup community for a lively evening celebration Oct. 9, complete with live music and a bounce house for the kids. They wanted to turn what was once a somber date into something positive.
“That was a good, happy-feeling party,” Thiele said. “I didn’t anticipate it to be like that.”
A ‘good day’ together
On the other side of Old Redwood Highway, fire survivors from Mark West Estates had a similar idea to commemorate the one-year mark.
Numerous people who lost homes, along with first responders and others, had a barbecue and potluck in the neighborhood park on Oct. 7. Mike Holdner, whose Pacific Heights Drive home burned down, said there was some “gallows humor” among attendees due to the winds blowing through that Sunday.
Otherwise, the mood was festive and positive, he said.
“It was a good day,” Holdner said. “It was a good three hours we spent together.”
More than 175 homes were lost in Mark West Estates, and by Holdner’s count 104 have now started at least the early phases of construction. The owners of 30 more properties are having their designs reviewed by the subdivision’s homeowners’ association, he said.
About 80 homes in the subdivision are being rebuilt by Orange County-based Stonefield Cos., an effort Holdner helped coordinate. His own home, which should be completed by April, is part of the group rebuild.
“That’s my baby,” he said.
Stonefield representatives said in a statement earlier this month they had poured 58 foundations in Mark West Estates and expects to have the remainder finished in the coming weeks. The company has started siding and installing roofs and expects to soon start interior insulation.
Stonefield has also begun its 15-home group rebuild in Larkfield Estates, with the first foundations poured earlier this month. The company was expecting to start framing the first home there the week of Oct. 22, according to the statement.
The first homes in the group rebuilds are expected to be finished this upcoming spring.
Launching community group
Larkfield-area fire survivors also announced this month they created a new nonprofit to help improve their community as it recovers.
The Larkfield Resilience Fund will go after grant money and solicit donations from community members to help a variety of projects, the first of which envisions planting as many as 200 trees in the front yards of homes that are being rebuilt.
The nonprofit is also interested in installing a warning siren and a lookout camera that will monitor for potential wildfires threatening Larkfield. An emergency preparedness training program also is envisioned for residents.
The fund is overseen by a seven-member board of directors, all of whom are fire survivors.
Separately, the Rebuild Northbay Foundation and Habitat for Humanity are helping Larkfield Estates and Mark West Estates secure funds for 1 mile of fencing to insulate the communities from traffic on Mark West Springs Road and Old Redwood Highway.
Jennifer Gray Thompson, the rebuild foundation’s executive director, said the Larkfield effort will cost about $476,000.
“That is a half-million dollars that they then don’t have to come up with in a community that is already underinsured,” Thompson said. “It’s a big deal.”
Thompson said earlier this month that the organizations were still working to line up all the financing.
Rebuild Northbay was founded by Sonoma-based lobbyist and developer Darius Anderson, who is managing member of Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat.
Utility work nears completion
PG&E crews remain at work replacing underground electric lines destroyed in Larkfield Estates and Mark West Estates. The utility expects to have the whole project finished by the end of the month, according to spokeswoman Deanna Contreras.
PG&E had previously said the work would be done by the end of the year. The project involved more than four miles of trenching and installing eight miles of underground electrical lines.
Contreras said PG&E is working with Sonoma County officials to determine the best time for permanent restoration of the roads where the utility trenched in the subdivisions. Crews will place temporary asphalt in the areas in the meantime, she said.
You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @thejdmorris.