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86-year-old Tubbs fire survivor marks sweet return home

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Kirsten Carpenter wanted to welcome her mother home without drawing too much of a crowd.

She succeeded on the first count and failed on the second.

Two years, seven months and 13 days after losing her Larkfield Estates house in the Tubbs fire, 86-year-old Beverly Nystrom — Carpenter’s mom — returned to a new and improved version of it just after noon on Thursday. Described by her daughter as a kind of “grandmother for the neighborhood,” Nystrom was greeted with as much pomp and circumstance as the pandemic allowed. Masked neighbors and friends bestowed cards, houseplants and sundry other gifts on her, then embraced her, from 6 feet away, in pantomimed “virtual” hugs.

Honking cars cruised slowly past, their occupants shouting “Welcome home, Bev!”

Thousands of people who lost homes in the 2017 North Bay wildfires have returned to rebuilt houses. But few faced the challenges that Nystrom, a widow, overcame to make it to Thursday’s “key presentation” and housewarming drive-by on Chelsea Drive.

Diagnosed with a gynecological cancer four days before the Tubbs fire took her house, Nystrom was delayed in getting around to her rebuild. “We couldn’t even think about that,” said Karin Nystrom, another daughter. “We just wanted to make sure she got well.”

After undergoing successful surgery to remove the cancer, Beverly engaged another formidable foe: her insurance company. Despite her exceptional circumstance, State Farm originally denied her request to extend her payments for additional living expenses past the two-year anniversary of the Tubbs fire.

On Oct. 25, 2019 — two days after The Press Democrat contacted State Farm for comment on the case — a manager ordered a review of Nystrom’s appeal. Her benefits were extended six months.

“I’ve got the spirit of a survivor,” she declared on Thursday, standing in her new driveway. “With that comes the will to push hard!”

At that point her attention was diverted to Grant Sherwood, 10, and his almost-8-year-old sister, June, who presented their neighbor with giant, homemade cards.

“We have the same birthday,” said Beverly of Grant. “When I was 80, he was four.”

It was their father, Brad Sherwood, who came to Beverly’s rescue the night of the fire. She’d lost power while her garage door was going up. Hearing her cries for help, he sprinted over, pulled the door up manually, and made sure she got out.

“Knowing how hard she had to fight to get back here,” said Sherwood, “brings tears to my eyes.”

In an informal front yard ceremony, Nystrom was then welcomed by Cory McCormick, a co-owner of Santa Rosa-based Holly & Construction, which completed the four-bedroom house, distinguished by its adjoining granny unit.

Beverly Nystrom will stay there, while Kirsten and Steve Carpenter and their four sons — Ian, Aidan, Brennan and Cameron — will live in the main house. Spacious an abode though it is, things can feel a bit cramped during the quarantine. Set up at opposite ends of the dining room table, Steve teaches science at Piner High School while Kirsten instructs kindergarteners at the J.X. Wilson School. Laughter erupted among Steve’s physics students earlier this week when they were able to hear, quite clearly, a chorus of kindergarteners singing “the frog life-cycle song,” he recalled.

Even as she is delighted to be close to family, Beverly values her independence. “Look, I have my own garage,” she pointed out. The two dwellings are connected by her breakfast nook. It is devoid of furniture for now, but not for long.

Beverly and her late husband, Bud, bought the place in 1973. It didn’t have air conditioning, and most days didn’t need it, thanks to the expansive walnut tree casting shade in the backyard.

While that tree was lost in the inferno, enough of its wood was salvaged for a local artisan to fashion a fireplace mantel to go in the main house and a coffee table for Bev’s breakfast nook.

The wrought iron gate to Bev’s new courtyard seemed a tad out of place among the brand new materials: it was warped and fire-scarred.

Burned in the Tubbs fire, that gate was salvaged by Kirsten and put it in storage. On Thursday, McCormick handed Beverly a pair of scissors, which she used to cut a ribbon tied to the wrought iron gate, a link to the previous homestead. Stepping through, she turned to face a throng of neighbors and friends who, despite their masks and proper distancing, still constituted a crowd.

Holding her arms up in victory, she declared:

“I love you all!”

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

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