How the Tubbs fire forced survivors to discover new strengths, talents
It is a club no one wants to belong to. Once they were in it, however, having lost their homes and most of their worldly possessions in the firestorm that ravaged the North Bay two years ago, many people surprised themselves.
Beset by obstacles ranging from red tape, to stubborn insurance companies, to builders behaving badly, they were forced to stretch, evolve and grow in ways they could not have imagined before Oct. 9, 2017. Here are the stories of five fire survivors — a mechanical engineer, a librarian, a teacher, a farmer and a retired lumber wholesaler with a literary bent — whose lives were upended, and who discovered, in the process of reclaiming them, talents and reserves of strength they had no idea they had.
Introvert no more
In their 17 years of marriage, Michael Holdner never had addressed his wife with the urgency he did early the morning of Oct. 9, 2017:
“April — we need to go. We need to go NOW!”
Holdner had just opened the blinds of their bedroom window. Five hundred yards south and east, the ridgeline was ablaze.
He hasn’t been the same since.
Holdner, 48, is a mechanical design engineer for Keysight Technologies. Though pleasant and friendly, he is not quite outgoing. He wasn’t, at least, until he realized that he had skills and knowledge to help his Mark West neighbors. To do that, he’d have to get better at putting himself out there.
After escaping the fire in his pickup, Holdner, April and their son, Thomas, moved into the Rohnert Park home of one of his work colleagues. Damaged in the fire, Keysight’s headquarters on Fountaingrove Parkway was temporarily closed.
At work, he toiled on multiyear design projects. At home, he spent long, happy solitary hours in his garage, focused on domestic projects.
“I’m a project guy,” said Holdner, putting his finger on the primary reason for his transformation, “but there I was sitting on my ass with no projects to work on.”
How could he be useful? I’m an engineer, he thought, and I believe in economies of scale — in doing things efficiently.
He knew that Mark West Estates was a planned neighborhood, with only five basic floor plans. What if it used one developer to rebuild the whole neighborhood?
While that was naive, he now admits, he dove into research, reading up on every builder on the West Coast.
The homeowners association chose Stonefield Companies, which had worked on multiple post-fire home rebuilds in Southern California. After doing rough sketches of the new homes they proposed to build, Stonefield reserved a room in a Windsor church. A presentation was planned. Hundreds of homeowners would attend.
But the woman scheduled to make a brief speech introducing the builder had a conflict. Holdner would have to fill in.
“At that point, I’m still the information guy,” Holdner recalled, “the introverted engineer collecting data.”
It was time to leave his comfort zone.
“So I got up and gave my spiel. I guess I came across as somewhat coherent.”
Over 100 attendees signed forms expressing interest. When Stonefield asked homeowners to review the rough sketches, then provide feedback on them, Holdner had an idea. Divide homeowners into focus groups — one group for each of the five floor plans. “That way, we could consolidate input down to one voice, rather than, say 11 voices” per floor plan, he said.