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Coffey Park Chronicles

As part of an ongoing series, The Press Democrat is following the residents and recovery of Coffey Park, the Santa Rosa neighborhood destroyed by the Tubbs fire. Read all of the stories here.

East of Coffey Lane, nearly 100 Christmas carolers gathered Saturday afternoon for a neighborhood stroll past lots filled with fire debris and those that had been cleaned except for an ash gray surface.

West of Coffey, roughly 60 volunteers were making preparations for a nighttime winter wonderland for children, with bounce houses, a “snow hill,” hay rides and Christmas trees strung with battery-operated lights, some near incinerated cars and pickups.

And near the western edge of an immense burn zone, amid blue skies and a stiff north wind, the Russell family decorated a Christmas tree on the spot where their home once stood on Kerry Lane.

Holiday cheer came Saturday in ways big and small to Coffey Park.

The scenes featured acts of kindness and efforts to push past the pain caused by the destruction of more than 1,300 homes in October in the northwest Santa Rosa neighborhood.

“We’re here to show people things can be brought back,” said Chris Russell, who with her husband, Adam, and daughter, Niko, wrapped solar-powered lights on not only the tree at their lot but also on the burned 2003 Nissan Murano that Niko used to drive to her classes at Santa Rosa Junior College. As an extra touch, the mother and daughter hung two red and white stockings in the open back of the SUV, which now lacks a rear hatch.

The October wildfires claimed 24 lives and destroyed more than 5,000 homes in Sonoma County.

In Coffey Park, a compact area of mostly tract homes, a few neighbors started putting up Christmas trees on empty lots the week after Thanksgiving. Now trees, wreaths and stockings can be seen sprinkled among the neighborhood on both cleaned sites and those still containing debris and standing chimneys.

On Saturday two events raised the holiday celebrations to a new level.

First, the carolers went through the neighborhood, singing a mix of religious and modern carols. Sebastopol musician and author Buzzy Martin strummed a small guitar and led the singing.

“We’re all in this together,” Martin said when asked why he joined the caroling Saturday.

The singers’ biggest audience was before about 10 disaster workers, including five in white hazmat suits, who were treated to “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “Deck the Halls,” among other songs.

The caroling, sponsored by the Community Hands Project, drew participants from around the county. But it also included a few Coffey Park neighbors, including Steven and Linda Thomas, who lost their home in the south end of the neighborhood.

Thomas, a retired Santa Rosa police commander, said he was struck by carolers who told him how the fires had made them feel more connected with both their neighbors and others around the city. He expressed hope that similar efforts will reach out to fire survivors from Fountaingrove and other parts of the county.

“Everybody should have an opportunity for people to support them,” he said.

When the carolers reached the western portion of Hopper Avenue, Linda Thomas received a bouquet of red roses and white carnations, a free gift apparently prepared for neighbors. There the second event was gearing up, one that began with a single individual stringing lights and blossomed into an impromptu holiday carnival.

The Hopper Avenue festivities are spearheaded by Ronnie Duvall, a Red Cross volunteer who saw how black Coffey Park was at night and decided to add some battery-powered Christmas lights on Hopper. Soon others joined him, and their plans grew to include weekend night activities where area children could see holiday lights, receive gifts, drink cocoa and play on a four-foot-tall mound of “snow,” which has been provided by an ice house from Bodega Bay.

Area contractors and business people got involved, including Glen Ghilotti, owner of the Team Ghilotti engineering contractor in Petaluma. Ghilotti, who on Saturday afternoon was driving visitors along Hopper on hay rides in an antique truck, said one of his crew in the debris cleanup first told him about Duvall.

He called Duvall’s effort “incredible” and estimated that at least 15 companies have made upwards of $50,000 in contributions for the night festivities.

Duvall said the festivities will continue tonight and he wants to bring it back next weekend, too.

“I promise you one person can make a difference.” Duvall said.

On Saturday night, the multicolored lights on Hopper Avenue could be seen from several blocks away. And throngs of visitors were making their way through a half-dozen cul-de-sacs where different activities were being held.

Among those volunteering Saturday was Tricia Woods, who lost her house on Hopper and was among the first neighbors to erect a Christmas tree on her lot. Woods said she was heartened by her fellow volunteers and looking forward to the night’s festivities.

“It brings back the spirit of Christmas,” she said. “The community feel is amazing.”

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 707-521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @rdigit.

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