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RebuildingFountaingrove: Block captains point to progress, risks in rebuild effort

Gwen Bargetzi remembers watching families of quail, fox, hummingbirds and deer in the open space near her Fountaingrove home. She and her husband, Paul, got along well with their neighbors on Repton Way, a quiet street in this hillside enclave.

Much of that life vanished in October 2017 when the Tubbs fire came roaring over the hills from Calistoga. The couple's home and more than 1,500 others in Fountaingrove were destroyed as flames swept through the neighborhood in the early morning hours.

For the first two weeks, they stayed with Paul's sister in Sebastopol while assessing the damage and considering their options. What happens next? Does it make sense to rebuild? Bargetzi said she struggled with the loss of her home and sanctuary.

The couple bought a house near Piner High School in December 2017, a decision that gave them some much-needed breathing room. Despite losing their home and most of their possessions, Bargetzi said she and her husband were among the lucky ones.

“We are the most fortunate of unfortunate,” she said. “Yes, we lost our house and everything we had. But we landed in another place.”

Spurred by a desire to help, Bargetzi became a neighborhood block captain. She would attend weekly meetings with local government agencies, excavation companies and contractors, then share the information with about 22 neighbors and fellow fire survivors.

“We're all in different places in what we want to do to rebuild, but there's always somebody to help,” she said. “We have a text chain of (fire survivors) so you can reach someone, even 11 at night.”

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Decision point

Fountaingrove residents eager to rebuild have been slowed by overexcavation, water contamination, permit delays and issues with insurance companies. Six homes had been rebuilt in the area by the end of 2018, according to city data, with more than 250 homes under construction. The neighborhood lags behind Coffey Park, where 83 homes had been finished by December 2018.

Bargetzi predicts the neighborhood rebuilding effort will gain steam this spring, though she cautioned that many residents are still in a “defensive crouch.” She said even the fire victims who were properly insured have had to make tough financial decisions.

“Once we're done with the winter, I think insurance settlements - while they will be painfully short of what people need ­­­­- will come in and people will do the best they can,” said Bargetzi. “People will build smaller, they'll build smarter, they'll throw their 401(k) into it.”

For those who have not started rebuilding, a decisive moment is coming in October. That's when many homeowners will stop receiving additional living expense benefits, which covers rent for policyholders. The benefit expires after two years.

“I think there will be a frenzy,” said Bargetzi. “The pressure is really going to increase this year. I'm afraid of people having to make decisions because they're under the gun. Because they can't afford a mortgage and a rent.”

While they would like to rebuild in Fountaingrove, Bargetzi said the couple may pause these plans to allow other neighbors to proceed ahead.

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‘It looks so much better'

John Glaser is rebuilding his home off Cross Creek Road in Santa Rosa. He made the decision soon after the fires, but hit a snag when crews overexcavated his lot. Now that construction is finally underway, Glaser said he feels a burden has been lifted from his shoulders.

“It's no longer about debris removal, it's what kitchen counters do we want to have in the house,” he said. “It's all positive. We have a lot of work to do on the property, but it seems more manageable than it used to.”

With a rebuild that started in August, Glaser said construction is about 30 percent complete. The next step will be putting up rafters, he said, and then the roof in another month or two. Glaser said he has already noticed new signs of life on the 4-acre property.

“Everything had looked so devastated, burned out with no life whatsoever,” he said. “Now we have green grass and leaves on some trees. It looks so much better.”

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Cautious hope for the future

Will Abrams is a neighborhood block captain who lost his home on Riebli Road in the Hidden Hills neighborhood. He now rents a home in Sky Hawk with his wife and two children while considering their options, including a rebuild. First, Abrams said he wants to see change.

“I have some plans for my new home, and my progress is tied to what the community is going to be doing,” he said. “We narrowly escaped the flames with two young kids. I want to make sure I can look them in the eye and tell them we are safer.”

Abrams said there's more work to be done to improve public safety and alert systems in Sonoma County, especially for people living in the wildlife-urban interface. He praised the efforts of local agencies and elected officials, but said a lack of key oversight would set the stage for future disasters.

“I think there's a leadership vacuum around these issues,” said Abrams. “There are a lot of folks asking questions about how they should rebuild. Depending on who's in the room, you get different answers. Everyone is hungry for direction.”

Both Abrams and Bargetzi joined the block captain program to make a difference and help other people. Bargetzi said the kindness she sees in neighbors and local leaders has given her hope that the community will recover.

“Everyone is using this like the phoenix. We're going to rise beautifully from the ashes,” she said. “It was a shared calamity. We're going to come out of this because of who we are.”

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