Tubbs fire survivors claim new eco-friendly Mark West home in time for Thanksgiving
On the night of Oct. 8, 2017, Barry Hirsch and his wife, Marlena, were fleeing the deadly Tubbs fire, which destroyed their Santa Rosa home in the Michele Way Estates in Santa Rosa.
One year later the Hirsches and a team of plumbers and electricians are putting the finishing touches on their new 2,100-square-foot home.
Hirsch, a 69-year-old retired homebuilder, is among the first wave of fire survivors in Sonoma County to move in to a brand new house where their old house once stood.
“This house is a big change from the ranch house I built here on this lot back in 1986,” he said. “We definitely did not want to replicate the old house. We wanted a clean start.”
With their sons now grown, the empty nesters decided their new house needed a completely different feel.
For starters, they decided it should be bright, open and more energy efficient.
To that end, no walls separate the living room from the kitchen and dining room, as was the case with their old ranch house.
“So now we have one big common space,” Hirsch said. “I also have an office with a large window that looks out into the open. It’s very inspiring.”
The carbon-free home is what’s known as an advanced energy rebuild. It features 21 solar panels, which supply enough energy to power the house and charge two electric cars.
Unlike the older model, their new home has no gas appliances, fireplaces or wood-burning stoves.
“We decided on an all-electric house to do our part to better the environment and not be reminded of the fire and smoke that caused so much trauma in this neighborhood,” he said.
Hirsch is pleased the home is nearly finished and proud of the work he has put into it. However, he still struggles with memories of the night the fire ripped through Michele Way Estates.
“At 11:30 on the night of Oct. 8, we had to escape the flames of the Tubbs fire,” he recalled. “It roared through our Mark West neighborhood and followed us to the Round Barn Hilton where we evacuated.”
The neighborhood on Santa Rosa’s northeastern outskirts was one of the first clusters of suburban homes overrun by the Tubbs fire, which began its deadly march in Sonoma County by mowing down ranch homes and rural estates higher up in the canyon of Mark West Creek, in Knights Valley and Mountain Home.
Like thousands of other survivors of the fire, Hirsch was in shock. He decided the best therapy for dealing with the loss was to get busy.
He made a snap decision. Just two days after the disaster, he found himself at an architect’s office drawing up a design for a new house.
“Pretty soon I had a super team in place, including architects, structural, soils and civil engineers,” he said. “It helped that the County of Sonoma expedited the permitting and inspection process.”
Hirsch considers himself to be a private person, but his experience inspired him to help his neighbors through the arduous and complicated task of rebuilding.
“Through all this I got to know my neighbors,” he said. “I honestly never knew them before."
“We’ve supported each other through this turmoil,” he said. “If anything ever happens again, we have the framework in place to deal with it.”
Hirsch has advice for anyone who is beginning the process of rebuilding a home lost from last year’s fires.
“Use local companies with long and proven track records,” he said. “And ask a lot of questions, be proactive and be persistent.”
Right now, he and Marlena are excited they will soon be spending their first Thanksgiving in the house, a familiar tradition in an unfamiliar environment.
“I’m not sure how I will feel. I’ve been so busy for a year now getting to this point, right down to the furniture details, Hirsch reflects. “I’ll make a judgment once I’m settled in. I know this is a very different place now.”
Only half of the 62 residents who lost their homes on Michelle Way are planning to rebuild. There is too much stress and trauma associated with the fire and some cannot afford the expense of a new home.
“There’s still a lot of uncertainty in this neighborhood, both short and long-term,” Hirsch acknowledged. “I know many people here are still struggling to create a new beginning. For all of us it’s been really life changing. “I like to think that I’ve learned from the experience and that it’s made me different. “I hope that I’ve become a better person because of it.”