How survivors forged unexpected friendships after the 2017 wildfires

The "Follow This Story" feature will notify you when any articles related to this story are posted.

When you follow a story, the next time a related article is published — it could be days, weeks or months — you'll receive an email informing you of the update.

If you no longer want to follow a story, click the "Unfollow" link on that story. There's also an "Unfollow" link in every email notification we send you.

This tool is available only to subscribers; please make sure you're logged in if you want to follow a story.

Please note: This feature is available only to subscribers; make sure you're logged in if you want to follow a story.

Subscribe

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.

The North Bay firestorm claimed 40 lives and destroyed 6,187 homes. And yet, some good came of it. In rebuilding their lives, many survivors found an unexpected bounty: the friendships forged in the aftermath of the disaster — bonds stronger than many had known before Oct. 9, 2017.

“We’ve had so much loss and tragedy,” said a Coffey Park resident who lost her home of 30 years, “but we’ve gained so much emotionally.”

Jim Scally is still mourning the 150-year-old oak tree he lost in the Tubbs fire that also claimed his house on Crimson Lane in Coffey Park.

“We bought the house because of that tree,” he said.

Having salvaged a section of its trunk, however, he intends to turn cuts of it into bar tables and other oak items, which he will give to friends. pla

“People will be saying, ‘Oh God, not another cheese tray from Scally,’” he predicted, with a grin, during a recent tour of the neighborhood.

Bar tables and cheese trays fall into a category Scally and his wife, LuAnn, have dubbed “upsides” — unlikely ways their lives have improved since the Tubbs fire laid them low.

For instance, Scally said, “All the sudden, we no longer needed to have a garage sale. And we can use all the profanity we want, and no one cares.”

Some upsides are more real than others. The gifts they value most can be counted during a slow ride around the neighborhood with Scally, who wasn’t exactly a shrinking violet before the Tubbs fire.

After it, however, his circle of friends has expanded threefold, like the heart of the Grinch who stole Christmas.

“Hey Gary!” he shouts to a man spray-painting baseboards in his garage. Gary smiles and waves.

Heading south on Kerry Lane, Scally drives past the home of May Salido. On Dec. 8, 2018, the day she and her three children returned to Coffey Park, he welcomed them back, after introducing himself as “the Griswold guy.”

Some of Scally’s renown comes from his custom of decking his house with more than 2,000 lights every Christmas, ala Clark Griswold in “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.”

“I know your house,” she said. He told her where she could get a deal on a storage shed. They’ve become friends.

Further south on Kerry, he parked the car and bounded out to embrace a woman standing in her driveway.

“Hello, dear friend,” said Pamela Van Halsema, who he met through neighborhood support group Coffey Strong, and who excitedly invited him in to see her nearly finished home. They chatted about light fixtures and tile backsplashes, and then things got real.

“This fire bent me the most I’ve ever been bent,” he shared with her. “But I’m thankful, ’cause it forced me to really look at my life.’”

The staggering material losses of the fire survivors have a psychological parallel inside them.

“Not only has their physical life been rebuilt,” said Doreen Van Leeuwen, a Santa Rosa-based marriage and family therapist, “but they are being rewired neurologically from this experience.”

The defenses victims had built up, the masks they wore to represent themselves, were suddenly removed.

“They’ve been forced to recreate themselves,” she said. “I think that’s why some people are more open” to authentic communication, genuine friendships, and, well, hugs.

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.

“C’mere, give me a hug,” Van Halsema said, when the tour was over.

Aside from making new friends, Scally has forged stronger bonds with old ones. His 2006 Dodge Charger, parked on Crimson Lane the night of the fire, somehow survived unscathed. A neighbor’s son always had coveted that ride. So, a couple months after the blaze, Scally gave it to him.

“It made him feel incredible, and I’ve gotten to know that family a lot better,” he said. “That’s just how the neighborhood operates.”

So it is. A month or so ago, some anonymous benefactor left in his front yard a 15-gallon pot containing a live oak tree.

More than just a porch

On a calm, cool Thursday night six adults and two kids gathered by the new porch of a house on Flintwood Drive, grown folks chatting over sips of beer and wine and the youngest child flitting around the front of the Hidden Valley home.

Neighbors here gathered before the fires, but at block parties, not on verandas or stoops. Over the course of the ongoing rebuild, many in the area have decided to add front porches to their new homes, offering a place for friends and neighbors to congregate, other than driveways and roads.

Tracy Condron, daughter of former city mayor Janet Condron, used to live nearby in Fountaingrove and was accustomed to jogging through the hilly Santa Rosa neighborhood.

When her home burned down in the Tubbs fire, the choice to move to Hidden Valley was made easier by the warmth she felt from residents at an early rebuild gathering.

“It’s always felt like home,” Tracy Condron said.

Her new neighbors agreed. They were close before the 2017 fires and are even closer now, but for some, the newfound tightness inspires something bordering on guilt for residents who realized the limits of the past neighborliness.

“Today, I would run down to knock on their door,” said Matt Todhunter, standing at the corner of the porch, “but I didn’t that night.”

The gathering’s host, Dan Cuniberti, cut the tension with a smile and a reminder: “You knocked on my window, Matt.”

Rich Peters, who lives a few doors away, said that his late wife, Donna, really wanted a front porch to be part of their new house.

But she fell ill and passed away before the home could be completed.

Peters woke up early the morning the concrete for his new porch was poured, and he brought his late wife’s cremated remains with him. He remembers that a burly leader of the crew, aware of the moment’s solemn nature, decided a prayer was needed. He made some remarks in Spanish that sounded “incredibly heartfelt” to Peters.

After the concrete had been poured, he cast some of Donna’s ashes on top of the surface. In that way, his wife became an indelible part of the porch they never got to enjoy together.

“She wanted a front porch that she could sit on,” Peters said, “so she’s there.”

‘The only ones who get it’

Anne Barbour was in Park City, Utah, taking some hard-earned vacation. Yet she was acutely aware, during a Sunday evening conversation, of a vegetation fire roaring over 700 miles away, in American Canyon, Napa County.

“It’s up to 150 acres,” said Barbour, who lost her Coffey Park home in the Tubbs fire. Two years later, like many fellow survivors, she is acutely aware of wildfires that erupt elsewhere. The American Fire, covering some 526 acres, had been fully contained by Monday evening.

“When someone dies in a car accident, you become aware of those kinds of tragedies,” she said. “It brings up the same kind of grieving and loss.”

The Tubbs fire, she said, took more than the house where she’d lived for 30 years, where she raised her son and she’d lived with her husband, until he passed six years ago.

Your house is your comfort zone, “where you go at the end of a work day and sit in your favorite chair and close out the world. We lost that,” she said, “but we gained this other comfort.”

By that, she is referring to the fellow survivors with whom she’s bonded in the aftermath of the inferno.

A board member of the neighborhood group Coffey Strong, Barbour played a key role in replacing the burned, crumbling Hopper Wall with an improved 8-foot stucco version.

That convoluted exercise that took scores of hours of phoning dozens of far-flung residents to get their permission to do demolition and construction on their property.

Barbour, who owns her own housecleaning business, worked closely with fellow board member Sasha Butler and Steve Rahmn, Coffey Strong president, and now counts them among her dearest friends.

“Sasha and I talk or text almost every day. And Steve will call when he’s driving home from work and say, ‘Hey, haven’t heard your voice in awhile, what’s up?’ ”

“We’ve had so much loss and tragedy, but we’ve gained so much emotionally,” said Barbour of the bond created by shared trauma.

The disaster fortified a sense of community in Coffey Park that was robust, by all accounts, to begin with. “If it weren’t for neighbor helping neighbor,” Barbour said, many more people would’ve died.

Mike Shuken agreed. He’s a Berkeley firefighter who was part of a strike team that responded to the Tubbs fire. Driving past the hundreds of Coffey park homes consumed in flames, and smoldering remains of others, he and his colleagues feared a death toll in the hundreds.

One of the reasons it was much lower — 24 people died in Sonoma County, including five in Coffey Park — was that entire communities turned into first responders.

“People didn’t just leave their homes and run away from this fire,” he said of Coffey Park. “They left their homes and banged on their neighbors’ doors. They left their homes and piled people into their cars and took them to some place safe. That entire neighborhood became a neighborhood of first responders.”

The price of this extraordinary camaraderie can be high. Sometimes, you need to get somewhere, said Barbour, with a smile, “but if you stopped to talk to everyone you want to talk to, it would take you an hour to get out of the neighborhood.”

She shows her true colors in the next breath: “I adore so many of these people. They are the only ones who get it.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Ausmurph88. Reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Wsreports.

Show Comment

Our Network

Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Emerald Report
Spirited Magazine