Coffey Park residents reflect on the losses, progress made since October 2017 wildfires
One year ago, Mike Hibbard climbed onto his roof and shot video of a neighborhood that had been reduced to a sepia haze of hot ash and rubble.
The 70-year-old ski tour business owner this week plans to once more set up a ladder beside his Coffey Park home, one of a dozen on Skyview Drive that somehow survived the flames and cinders that lit up the darkness last October.
“I’m going to go up and make a video one year later,” he said.
Hibbard and his neighbors tonight are marking the destruction of their conventional suburban neighborhood by the most devastating fire in California history. Hundreds are expected to gather in the heart of Coffey Park, where fire survivors will consider both what was lost and the progress made to rebuild almost 1,500 homes, each one incinerated with a heat so intense that it twisted steel bars and melted the alloy wheels off abandoned luxury SUVs.
For many, the year has been the most disorienting of their lives. The first anniversary offers a chance to reflect upon an uphill journey to rebuild their homes and lives.
“Everything that’s familiar is gone,” said Mike Baker, a resident whose family lost their home on Keoke Court.
The strangeness extended beyond their burned neighborhood and the temporary homes the family lived in this past year. It also included clothing they acquired after the fire and which they often inadvertently left behind at homes of friends and family, said Baker, pastor of Santa Rosa’s Crosspoint Community Church, and his wife, Zöe.
“You just don’t recognize it,” she said, explaining how she could exit a room without remembering to take along a new sweater or jacket.
The North Bay wildfires claimed 40 lives and nearly 6,200 homes, a level of disaster not seen here since the 1906 earthquake. The most destructive of the blazes, the Tubbs fire, began near Calistoga on the night of Oct. 8 but jumped the six-lane Highway 101 and reached the flatlands of Coffey Park early on Oct. 9.
In Coffey Park, the fire did what previously had been unthinkable. It ravaged a leafy suburban neighborhood far removed from the oak-studded hills and wildlands that surround eastern Santa Rosa. Towering flames entered Coffey Park and devoured whole blocks of working- and middle-class homes, most of them modest and single-story, but with a smattering of two-story and expansive custom designs.
The blaze killed four people and destroyed 1,321 single-family homes in Coffey Park. It also burned 78 Hopper Avenue apartments and 74 mobile homes at two parks west of the freeway.
In the days leading up to the anniversary, Coffey Park residents described the past year as a time of making small steps forward. The disaster brought incredible loss but also repeated outpourings of kindness from strangers and friends.
The way forward remains filled with uncertainties, but many said they plan to persevere based on a hope that they and their neighborhood will recover.
“I long for the day I can say to those who ask, ‘I’m fine. I’m great,’ ” said Velma Guillory, a retired Sonoma State University professor whose home burned on Hilary Court. For now, she said, her stock response about how she’s doing is: “One day at a time.”