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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

Inside a salmon-colored stucco home with stately white pillars in Santa Rosa’s Fountaingrove neighborhood, Michael Fiumara handed his husband his morning medication, then poured himself a glass of juice. Breakfast was at the kitchen table, the television news on mute. The couple’s quiet routine was only disrupted by the loud motors of the pressure washers outside scrubbing the ash and soot away.

They used to have neighbors. Karen next door. Lorrie and John from Texas. Jill and Stefan with two kids and a poodle. House after house in Fiumara’s neighborhood was reduced to charred rubble by the firestorm that burned last month, leaving most neighbors here with little else than the clothes they wore while escaping the flames.

But Fiumara’s house, the flowers and lawn, the replica of Michelangelo’s David statue, it’s all still standing, an island of life amid destruction. A reminder of fire’s capricious path.

“I’m going through miles of devastation before I get to my house. It’s the same when I leave,” said Fiumara, 60, a Santa Rosa attorney. “I hear bulldozers all day, and at night everything is pitch black except for these big trucks with floodlights. It’s scary. It’s surreal. It’s a war zone.”

The firestorms that broke out in October and burned across 142 square miles of Sonoma County ultimately destroyed 5,130 homes. The Tubbs fire leveled entire portions of Coffey Park, Larkfield, Fountaingrove and the Mark West Creek corridor in northern Santa Rosa, while whole streets in Glen Ellen and Kenwood in the Sonoma Valley were razed by the Nuns fire, along with homes and ranches dotting rural Bennett Valley.

Winding parkways, suburban streets and rural lanes have been transformed into tours of destruction.

But by chance —a shift of wind, valiant firefighting, whatever the reason — some houses were spared amid total loss. Residents of these structures drove into their devastated neighborhoods and found they could still unlock the door, step inside and be at home.

That was important to Fiumara, whose husband, Gordon Larsen, 85, a retired surgeon, has Alzheimer’s disease. He fares better at home surrounded by his regular routine. Fiumara said he’s moved as fast as possible to get the interior cleaned, exterminate the vermin that moved in after the fires and make it livable again.

“Trying to get back to normal is difficult when you’re surrounded by charred remains,” Fiumara said. “We have it better than most. We can go back to our own bed.”

Feeling ‘super lucky’

Those homes spared by the fires reek inside of smoke.

Chris Bradshaw counts his family in the “super lucky” category, even though they cannot yet return home on Summerhill Lane in Bennett Valley. The house and all their belongings stink.

Bradshaw, his wife, their teenage son and tenants escaped the night of Oct. 8 with their four dogs and two cats, but they had to leave five horses and a dozen chickens behind. Amid the smoke and gusting winds, Bradshaw let the horses out to a pasture because there was no trailer. Moments later, a neighbor fleeing the fire approaching from Glen Ellen drove through the pasture fence to escape.

They were finally allowed back in Oct. 10 with a large trailer to rescue the horses and chickens, which had survived in an unburned portion of a pasture. The Nuns fire leveled neighboring homes in the rural enclave, and they were stunned theirs didn’t burn.

“We were in shock when we saw we had a house, and when we saw the fire damage around it, so many things burned.” Bradshaw said.

Last week, workers began a weeklong process of cleaning smoke damage from the exterior and interior of the home. Bradshaw said his insurance will cover the work, which will cost an estimated $25,000.

They pressure washed the home’s exterior. They scrubbed the walls, baseboards and cabinets and wiped every horizontal surface with special cleaners. They set up heavy-duty air purifiers, cleaned out the air ducts and removed attic insulation. They brought in another company to clean the carpets, upholstery and mattresses.

Smoke infiltrated even homes with sealed windows and doors. Every cushion, each sock in the closed dresser drawer soaked up the smoke smell. Soot and ash cover surfaces, tiny particles landing in each cup in the kitchen and stuck to framed photographs on the wall.

On Tuesday, Bradshaw dropped off eight bags of his family’s clothing at Lakeside Cleaners on Montgomery Drive.

“It takes a huge psychological toll on people,” said Nicole Humber, owner of Bravo Restoration based in Windsor. “These homeowners, they’re in Fountaingrove or in Glen Ellen, their homes are still standing, but they’re still not right, they’re off.”

Cleaning damaged homes

Humber’s eight employees have been working seven days a week, a business boost from about one-to-two homes per week to five or six. It takes about 40 hours to clean a 1,600-square-foot house with smoke damage. Her company is booked through December.

Humber, who lives in Wikiup, said the wind shifted the Tubbs fire’s course before it reached her house. It, too, stinks of smoke, and she’s sent her workers to many homes in her neighborhood, but not hers.

“I haven’t had time. It’s been the joke in the office. … When are we cleaning your house?” Humber said.

David Guhin, director of economic development and planning for Santa Rosa, said city building inspectors conducted rapid, exterior assessments days after the fires to determine the extent of any damage on surviving homes. Inspectors marked their findings with colored flags — red for uninhabitable homes, yellow to indicate some damage and green for none immediately observed.

Homeowners can then follow up with a more detailed inspection.

“We also understand there may be damage we weren’t aware of,” Guhin said.

A home may look pristine but be uninhabitable.

Gratitude blended with guilt

The Tubbs fire seemed to skip over two Rincon Ridge Drive houses in Fountaingrove, including Lisa and Damon Mattson’s home of six years, leaving them grateful but also feeling a sense of guilt for being spared the loss that befell so many neighbors.

But it turns out fire crept into a back wall, skulking around undetected until a team of firefighters the afternoon of Oct. 9 inspected the outside and noticed a small trail of smoke. They had time to empty the dining room of paintings, pictures and other belongings before extinguishing the blaze.

The Mattsons emptied the home and boarded it up. Most of their personal belongings — from linens to clothing — were taken by a smoke damage restoration company to be cleaned. Some of it they’ll still have to throw away if they remain smoky. Lisa Mattson tried her own tricks after doing research online, like wrapping leather belts in newspaper to soak up the smoke.

Much of the inside will be torn down to the studs and rebuilt. The tile floor will be ripped out.

But Lisa Mattson said the couple are determined to repair their home, despite a contractor’s estimate that it would take at least a year. The ridgeline house was her dream home, the kind of place she never imagined she’d live during her modest upbringing in the Midwest.

“This process is going to be so long. It’s going to take years,” she said. “It’s surreal to think about being up there and being all alone in a sense; there will be only a few of us.”

They loved their neighbors, those they’d see walking their dogs and others who came over for dinner parties. She’s heard from several who don’t plan to return and others who are undecided.

Some of these homeowners have boarded up the windows and signed yearlong leases elsewhere, unwilling or unable to stay. Others, like Fiumara, are determined to stay, despite the daily sight of their lost communities.

Last week, Fiumara went for a nighttime walk with a friend, who was startled by the stark atmosphere of a once-thriving neighborhood.

“It’s dark. It’s scary,” Fiumara said. “But I said to him, ‘Look at the beautiful night sky. Pretend there are no burned ruins around us. Look at the stars. Look at the beautiful lights of the city of Santa Rosa.”

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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