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How the Tubbs fire forced survivors to discover new strengths, talents

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Special Coverage

For more stories on the anniversary of the October firestorm, go here.

_____

For more stories on the rebuilding efforts in Sonoma County’s four fire zones: Coffey Park, Fountaingrove, the greater Mark West area and Sonoma Valley, go here.

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.

Special Coverage

For more stories on the anniversary of the October firestorm, go here.

_____

For more stories on the rebuilding efforts in Sonoma County’s four fire zones: Coffey Park, Fountaingrove, the greater Mark West area and Sonoma Valley, go here.

In a remarkably short time, thanks to the focus groups, they sent the required input to Stonefield, which turned around and presented them with detailed renderings of what their new houses would look like.

Of the 178 Mark West Estates homes that burned, 78 homeowners chose to rebuild with Stonefield.

In the aftermath of the fire, Holdner recalled, “I kept running into people who were lost, they had no idea how to move forward, they were overwhelmed by the prospect of a doing a multiyear project like this.

“But I do that all day long at Keysight, I run these mechanical designs that take two to three years. It didn’t daunt me,” he said.

So he took the lead in his neighborhood. In addition to his work spearheading the rebuilding of Mark West Estates, Holdner serves as a block captain.

Early in 2018, he realized his neighbors needed to meet more than once every three months. Since then, they’ve convened biweekly. At Holdner’s urging — he’s kind of obsessed with economies of scale — subcommittees were formed to explore services they can get more cheaply if they buy in bulk, as it were.

So far, they’ve saved big bucks on fencing, solar panels, landscaping and water softeners.

“One guy said, ‘I want to do hot tubs,’” Holdner recalled. “We said, ‘Go for it.’”

Another helpful neighbor negotiated an excellent rate on garage floor epoxy coating.

“I love mine,” said Holdner, who is back home, back in his own garage, where he still does projects, but fewer of them, since he started putting himself out there.

Finding their inner activist

A part-time teacher and retired dental hygienist, Lisa Frazee and Janet Leisen made an unlikely pair of firebrands.

Yet, there they stood in Old Courthouse Square on the evening of Sept. 27, rallying the crowd gathered to shame insurance companies like State Farm and Nationwide, which have refused to extend monthly living expenses for the thousands of fire survivors whose homes are still under construction as the two-year anniversary of the Tubbs fire nears.

“State Farm is unilaterally interpreting our policies, and the California insurance code, in an immoral manner,” shouted Frazee, after noting she and her husband, also a teacher, had paid their premiums on time, every month for 25 years. “We’re not asking for more benefits, just more time to access those benefits.”

Cheers ensued, as they did following remarks made by Leisen, who rocked a hard hat while announcing that the Change.org petition she and Frazee started seeking to extend the payments had garnered over 8,500 signatures.

Five days later, Frazee and Leisen sat in a Santa Rosa coffee shop, reflecting on who they were before the fire, and how they became activists.

“I’m a person who’s always avoided conflict,” said Frazee, whose Wikiup home was lost in the Tubbs inferno. “Becoming confrontational — that was difficult for me,” she said.

That will come as a surprise to the city and county officials she’s grilled and held to account over the past two years. At a town hall meeting just days after the fire, Frazee was angry fire officials weren’t letting homeowners know if their houses had been destroyed or not.

It was too difficult to identify them, she was told.

“It’s not difficult for us,” she replied. “Give us satellite pictures.”

Satellite pictures were available the next day, she recalled.

Leisen and her husband, Corrie, own Leisen’s Bridgeway Farms, an 8.5-acre tract whose rebuilding was delayed for the six months it took to replace the 65-foot bridge connecting their neighborhood to Mark West Springs Road.

A self-described “impatient person,” Leisen said, “the biggest lesson I’ve learned from this is patience.”

Like countless others trying to build new homes, she has honed her researching skills to a keen edge, while cultivating persistence.

“You say no to me,” she said, “you better have a damn good reason.”

In May, Leisen was informed by her insurance adjuster she and her husband had until October 8 to incur any construction costs. If they wanted to be reimbursed, they’d have to spend the money — up to $350,000 — by that date.

Leisen read their homeowner policy, and the California insurance code, which gives customers 24 months minimum, “from the day they cut us the first check,” she said, not the day of the disaster to spend the money.

She pointed out to her adjuster the numerous, just causes for their construction delays, including an intensely wet rainy season and the burned bridge that denied meaningful access to their property for half and a year.

I reread your policy, the adjuster replied. You’re right, you do not have a deadline.

Leisen had won. So maddening — and frightening — was the experience, however, she decided to advocate for others still battling their insurers.

She’s now living on the farm, she said with some sadness, “where I haven’t planted anything in two years. I have no well.”

Yet, it was clear, as she told her story in Old Courthouse Square, that she was sowing resolve and hope.

‘What we’re here on earth to do’

Two years ago, Pamela Van Halsema was driving home to Coffey Park from Sacramento, where she’d spent the weekend at workshops devoted to training teachers to help kids who’d experienced trauma.

Befitting a librarian, she describes herself as a searcher. In her case, whether its social justice or environmental causes, she is searching for ways to improve the planet.

Driving west on Interstate 80 that afternoon, traffic slowed around Vacaville. There was a fire in the median. It was an omen.

“My house burned that night,” she said.

Van Halsema, her husband and their three children evacuated to the Finley Center on West College Avenue in Santa Rosa. In the middle of that grim night, a large group of senior citizens came in, refugees from a retirement community.

She’d been training, in the weeks before the fire, to help soothe and heal kids affected by adverse childhood experiences.

As the elderly filed in, Van Halsema recalled, “I was like, I just learned all these tools to help people. And now I’m going to use them.”

She spent the rest of the morning approaching the old folks, putting a hand on their shoulder, telling each, “You’re in a safe place now.”

That’s how she’s spent the intervening two years, helping her neighbors and fellow fire victims.

Even before the fire, before her time with neighborhood group Coffey Strong — which included a three-month stint as its president — Van Halsema was known for her actions on behalf of those less fortunate. When someone sprayed racist graffiti on a neighbor’s home, she knocked on the door, introduced herself, hugged them, then organized a block party to welcome and support the victims.

Since the fire, she’s ramped up her service, determined to use every tool at her disposal.

“If my neighbor is suffering,” she said, “I have a responsibility to see if I can help. I think that’s what we’re here on earth to do.”

Sometimes, however, a problem can’t be solved.

This seemed to be the case when officials from the city and the Sonoma County Water Agency unveiled landscape designs to help homeowners install permit-approved front yards.

The designs were lovely. The designs, alas, weren’t usable. They were too confusing. As Van Halsema politely explained to those officials, she had a master’s degree and her husband holds a doctorate in logic and they couldn’t figure it out.

So she pitched in with the streamlining and simplifying, which slowly, surely, made the yard designs user-friendly. Then she helped organize workshops to explain them to Coffey Park residents.

It was no surprise, in May, when the city awarded her a certificate, dubbing her a “water champion.”

She’s a champion of anyone who needs her help.

Literary ambition fulfilled

Some people moved away for good. Others hurled themselves into the Herculean task of rebuilding.

After losing his home in the Wikiup Hills, Jeff Howard wrote his first novel, at 72.

It had been percolating for much of his adult life, a life that was headed in a more cerebral direction until fate intervened half a century ago.

In his author biography on the back of “Paradox Of A Wish,” Howard’s 349-page historical thriller, he is described as an “anthropologist by training, lumberman by career.”

After earning his master’s in anthropology in 1975 at San Diego State University by “reconstructing” a population of skeletal remains from a nearby, forgotten cemetery, Howard was headed for the University of Washington, to study for a Ph.D.

He and his wife, Jan, had one son. Their second son was born with medical issues. That changed Howard’s mind about grad school.

He ended up in the Bay Area selling lumber. That job, intended to be a one-year stopgap, “stretched to two, then three years, then 10, then 20” — and ultimately into a 35-year career, Howard said. He retired in 2012 from Capital Lumber in Healdsburg, where he’d been the general manager.

A voracious reader and inveterate note taker, he jotted down ideas and summaries and working titles of books he might someday write. Even in retirement, however, he couldn’t get momentum to write his book. There was always something to do around his two-acre, ridgeline property: trimming oaks, whacking weeds, clearing dead branches.

“When the fire happened,” he said, “all that went away.”

He has some thoughts on the bromide often repeated to fire survivors: “It’s just stuff.”

“A couch is just stuff. Photographs of your kids, mementos of my wife’s mother, who had just died — those things are more than just stuff,” he said.

While he and his wife learned hard lessons such as “you can’t dwell on it,” and “you gotta move forward,” they also grieved what they’d lost. With their home rebuild proceeding at glacial pace, they chose, in the end, to sell their lot and move to Sonoma.

The most effective therapy for his grief, Howard found, was writing.

His notebooks, chock full of ideas and outlines, were gone. But he did have, on his laptop, an outline of the book that became “Paradox.”

At a card table in the bedroom of his rented apartment in Sonoma, “I just started writing,” he said. Fortunately, the plot was “very linear, so the characters just sort of took themselves down the river.”

Rising early most mornings, he would write for several hours. He describes that time as “unbelievably therapeutic.”

The book, which he finished in less than a year, features a young archaeologist, Nicholas Hawkins, whose quest to recover hidden Nazi loot leads to a dangerous discovery that puts at risk the future of the planet.

After a monthslong flirtation with a publishing house came to naught, he published the novel himself. It’s also available as an e-book.

Yes, the fire took a beautiful home they both loved. It also created, essentially, “a new life, with fabulous new friends,” he said.

It also forced him to finally deliver the book he’s long had in him. And Howard isn’t done. While plenty of people die in “Paradox,” Nicholas Hawkins isn’t one of them.

Keep an eye out for the sequel.

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Ausmurph88

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