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Kincade fire victims come back to homes damaged and destroyed

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It was Monday afternoon and Meghan Dixon was “Monday morning quarterbacking,” as she put it. Standing on the baked hardpan of what once had been the front yard of her house near Healdsburg, gazing at the ash-covered remains of most of her earthly possessions, she engaged in a bit of second-guessing.

If she had it to do over again, said Dixon, a dispatcher at the Santa Rosa Police Department, she might grab two boxes of “memorabilia — some things from when I was younger.”

Working the graveyard shift on the morning of Oct. 9, 2017, Dixon was inundated with panicked calls from people in the path of the Tubbs fire, asking what they should do.

“Our phones were so inundated,” she recalled, “you couldn’t stay on the line. You basically had to just give ’em instruction and a small pep talk and hope they were able to heed your advice.”

Now, 25 months later, she said, “I’m the one standing in line, asking for services at the community center.”

The Tubbs fire took 22  l ives in Sonoma County and destroyed 5,400 homes. While it burned a larger area, the Kincade fire took a lighter toll: 174 homes, and no lives lost. This has been rightfully celebrated as a testament to improved preparation, and the skill and valor of first responders.

But those improved statistics are cold comfort to folks who returned to destroyed homes.

45 minutes to leave

On Oct. 24, with the Kincade blaze advancing down the western flanks of the Mayacamas Mountains, Dixon was given 45  minutes to take whatever she could rescue from her two-story rental house in Alexander Valley, just south of the Soda Rock Winery on Highway 128.

She took clothes, valuables, documents and some personal items — like a sleeping bag — that struck her, afterward, as odd. “It’s kind of a random thought process that you go through,” Dixon said.

On this golden afternoon two days after residents were allowed to return to the burn zone, Dixon thought about the contents of those boxes: ceramic figurines, Christmas ornaments, other mementos.

After evacuating that Thursday, then working a graveyard shift, she headed north to her brother’s place in Chico with her parents, who live in Occidental. They piled back into the car Saturday night — having learned west county was being evacuated — and headed back to Occidental to retrieve belongings.

They arrived around 10:30 p.m. With nowhere else to go, after helping her folks pack their cars, Dixon reported to work with her sleeping bag and Mr. Thumper, a 4-H rabbit owned by her niece, Maysen, who lives in Geyserville.

Around 3:30 Sunday morning, she got the news that her house was gone.

A dispatcher for 15 years, Dixon has learned to “compartmentalize” her emotions, she said. She kept a stiff upper lip, in the minutes after getting the awful news about her house. “And then I went for a walk.”

Her sorrow comes in waves, she said. Disaster survivors putting on a brave face sometimes describe lost possessions as “just stuff.”

Based on her work with many Tubbs fire survivors, Santa Rosa marriage and family therapist Doreen Van Leeuwen said losing a home and its contents, “is deeply impactful in many different ways, especially when it comes to things that can’t be replaced.”

One client lost a collection of antique cars, another a baseball — a foul ball he’d caught at a Major League stadium, then had signed by a player.

“Recipes from your mother, ornaments from Germany,” Van Leeuwen said, “all these are things that can’t be replaced. In those situations, it’s not ‘just stuff.’ It’s deeply personal.”

‘I could’ve made room’

Her house on Chalk Hill Road had burned last week. Now Vanessa Vann was chastising herself for what she left behind. True, her car was packed, with two cats, various boxes “of pictures and stuff,” plus her 2-year-old son, Malakai.

But there were a number of his favorite toys she “could have easily grabbed,” she said. “I could’ve thrown some things around. I could’ve made room.”

Richard Sievers reminded her that he’d recovered the boy’s bubble-gum lawn mower, which appeared to be undamaged.

Sievers, a retired Delta Air Lines captain, is the owner of this 8-acre spread at the base of the Mayacamas 3 miles east of Windsor. His partner is Vanessa’s mother, Elaine Pacioretty. The four of them lived under this roof.

Estimating the chances he would lose the home at 30%, “I packed 30% of my underwear,”

Sievers said, “That’s the main house. It was built around 1900.”

He spoke of the structure in the present tense, as if it were still standing.

Across the drive reposed the destroyed remains of Sievers’ 2002 Jaguar and his ’66 Mustang.

Yet the vibe was surprisingly upbeat. Vann and Pacioretty had just spotted the feral cat Honey Buns, who looked singed and skinny, but otherwise OK. Pacioretty was thankful that so many oaks and redwoods had come through the blaze just fine.

She was mostly grateful, she said, “that we didn’t open our door to a wall of flames.” A longtime kindergarten teacher at the John B. Riebli Elementary School near Santa Rosa, where she still substitutes, Pacioretty points out that plenty of children who lived through the Tubbs fire “are still processing it.”

Her teacher friends leaned in immediately, after learning of her loss. They are replacing the schoolbooks she lost, and even Clifford.

To supplement children’s reading of Clifford the Big Red Dog, she would arrive in class carrying a large, stuffed version of Clifford.

When you’re a guest teacher, she said, “you’ve got to have a few tricks up your sleeve.”

Close call

Pacing the periphery of the goat house he’d lost, along with assorted other trailers, a shed and hay barn, Rodney Mintonye picked up a bell Tuesday afternoon and started ringing it.

“Bell still works,” he said, redundantly.

Spry, clear-eyed and dapper in his white shirt and braces, Mintonye is 86. He and his wife, Teresa, have lived on this 5-acre parcel abutting Windsor’s Foothill Regional Park for 51 years. The ashes of three of their four parents are buried on a hill overlooking the property. One day, when he was interring one of them, a neighbor came along.

Hope that’s not a body you’re burying, the man said.

“He was making a joke,” recalled Teresa Mintonye, laughing at the memory, “and Rod said, ‘Well, actually …’”

When their house burned down five years ago, experts blamed “electronics and rodents,” he said, meaning that a mouse chewed through a wire. It took 4½ years to rebuild.

They had no intention of rebuilding a second time if the house burned again. “Not at our age,” she said.

So it was profoundly upsetting when word got back to them, through a neighbor who’d seen flames leaping on their property, that the house was gone. For 24 hours, the couple consoled one another, lamenting their loss. Then they got new and different news.

While the fire had blackened almost everything on their 5 acres around the house, the structure itself had been saved.

As it was later explained to them, firefighters worried that if the Mintonye place burned, that blaze might ignite the subdivision below, then spread into downtown Windsor.

So a phalanx of determined firefighters, predominantly from Windsor, he said, surrounded the house and saved it. Aside from some charring on a southeastern column holding up the carport, and a bit of blistering on north wall of the house, except for a trailer that melted into the driveway, the place was largely unscathed.

By Tuesday, things were really looking up. Their two goats had been accounted for, and the insurance adjuster was just leaving, after thanking Teresa Mintonye for cleaning out the refrigerator.

The grass over them was scorched, but their parents were still just up the hill. One of the two benches near the grave stones commemorating them had collapsed in the fire, but the other remained standing.

“One bench is enough to hold both of our butts,” she said.

Staff Writer Austin Murphy can be reached at 707-521-5214 or at austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ausmurph88.

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