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Laetitia Teyssier, left, her husband Jean-Pierre, and their daughter Manon, 11, toss balls for their dog Toby in the spot where their home stood before it burned down during the Tubbs Fire, in the Hidden Valley Estates neighborhood of Santa Rosa, California, on Thursday, February 21, 2019. The Teyssiers have been living in the trailer parked on their property while they wait for their home to be rebuilt. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)

Race to rebuild: Odyssey of three Santa Rosa families at different points of fire recovery

Thousands of fire survivors are racing to finish homes by October, two years after the 2017 fires, when coverage expires for replacement housing. Three families who lost everything share their experience with projects that are all-consuming and shadowed by a key deadline.

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Silvester Onate, 57, is still looking for a contractor to rebuild a house at a price he can afford. Laetitia Teyssier, 41, is waiting for the rainy season to end so she can lay the foundation for a concrete home. Linda Johnson, 70, has been living in her rebuilt house for four months.

All three Sonoma County residents lost everything on the same day nearly 17 months ago in the ferocious Tubbs fire, the most destructive wildfire in California history at the time. Today, they are in different situations as they recover from the blaze. With the two-year anniversary of the wildfire coming in October, a fortunate few fire survivors have moved into new homes, but many desperately hope contractors can finish their new houses by then — when most insurance coverage for replacement housing expires.

“So many folks are in this position because they’re trying to do this on their own, and the reality is 99 percent of the people who lost a home have never built a home,” said John Allen, chief operations officer and vice president of AMP Homes, one of several major builders reconstructing the county’s fire-ravaged areas.

More than 2,300 rebuild projects are now underway in Sonoma County, with about 200 houses completed, together representing nearly half of the 5,334 homes lost here in the fires.

The massive rebuild operation in Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park, and slower efforts in Fountaingrove, Larkfield-Wikiup and Sonoma Valley, are unlike the orderly build-out of new subdivisions.

Instead, they resemble something more chaotic, with homes in various states of completion — some reoccupied, others a long away from that step — with all the sites and the lives of each family who lost a home intertwined.

Here are the stories of the unique rebuilding odyssey for Onate, Teyssier and Johnson.

Stay or go? Still on the fence

Silvester Onate started the rebuilding process in Coffey Park when many others did, shortly after the initial shock of the fire abated. Onate, a vineyard foreman, said he and his wife initially wanted the same style of house they lost. After speaking to architects, they started exploring something different.

They received $429,000 from their property insurance company for the loss of their home, significantly more than the $270,000 they paid for the Dennis Lane house in 2004. But after paying off the mortgage, they had only $329,000 to rebuild.

He said every builder he talks to starts negotiating at that amount. The cost quickly escalates with every added feature.

“Each little thing is extra, and the cost keeps going up,” Onate said, speaking in Spanish. “You want this type of tile? That’s another $10,000. You want these door locks? That’s a few thousand more.”

By last summer, after spending $26,000 on architectural and engineering plans and permit fees, the Onates could not find a builder who could construct them a house they could afford. They would have to take out another mortgage to break ground. Meanwhile, homes are going up all around him.

“My property is the only one on my street that’s still a dirt lot,” he said.

On a recent rainy February day, Onate visited John Allen of APM Homes on Cleveland Avenue. APM’s predecessor, Condiotti Enterprises, built much of Coffey Park decades ago, including the Onate home.

On a conference room table, the two men went over plans and Allen explained why it would be more cost effective to build the original home, save money, and then remodel later. That remodel, he said, would be a fraction of the cost of doing a “major change” in the home design.

When a large builder veers from a master plan that has been through the city’s design and review process and is being used in other lots, efficiencies are lost and costs go up, Allen said.

“We’re a Ford factory,” he said.

“I’ve begged and pleaded with all the fire survivors that were adamant. You know some of them just wanted a sliding door on the side of the house,” Allen said. “That’s a $5,000 item after-the-fact and they spent $160,000 (more) for the exact same house ... I asked them, I said, ‘Why? And they said, ‘Because that’s what we want.’”

“We’re cranking these houses out in about five or six months,” Allen said of homes being built according to a master plan design. “I have 68 foundations in the ground right now in Coffey Park.”

That timeline would work for Onate, whose insurance money for rent runs out in October. But he still would have to take out a loan to finish the house. He said banks have been unwilling to give him another mortgage.

Onate said some people are telling him he should leave Sonoma County, take his insurance reimbursement, then find work and a new home in a place like Modesto, where houses are more affordable. It’s the last thing he wants to do, he said.

He raised his son and two daughters in Sonoma County. He bought a home through hard work in the local wine industry. Years ago, before he came to Sonoma County he worked in the Central Valley, in Modesto and Stockton, and he didn’t like it there. He had the opposite reaction when he first came to Sonoma County.

“When I see those rolling hills, I said this is home,” he said.

Onate is still meeting with builders, still crunching numbers and still keeping the “faith,” he said. But just in case, he’s planning to visit a friend who lives in the Central Valley, “just to look around and see there.”

Building with safety in mind

Laetitia and Jean Pierre Teyssier’s new home will not be finished by October. Their move-in date is likely at the end of this year, or early 2020. But the couple have planned for that.

Since April, they and their two children have been living in an RV on their burned lot in Santa Rosa’s Hidden Valley neighborhood.

Laetitia Teyssier said they’re waiting until after there’s no longer a threat of rain because they are building a concrete home, requiring precise excavation and soil compaction.

“Living in the trailer was a way to have no pressure on rent money,” she said. “I prefer to wait one more year, two more years. But I will be safe. … It will be concrete, not wood.”

The Teyssiers, who are originally from France, bought their Hidden Valley home in 2014, after Jean Pierre went to work for Keysight Technologies. Sonoma County has been home ever since.

“American life is harder than in France, but American people are happy,” she said.

When the flames came in 2017, Teyssier’s husband was in Germany for work. She said the family dog woke her at 3 a.m.

“My dog scratched my face. He was the one that saved us,” she said. “I heard all the horns and sirens.”

By 3:30 a.m., Teyssier and her children were evacuated, taking with them a disk drive containing family photos and important emails, as well as a disaster-ready box filled with important documents. She also brought a fire extinguisher and a plastic gallon of what she thought was water but turned out to be vinegar.

Teyssier said she knew early on that she wanted to design her new home. In January, three months after the fire, she took classes in architecture and construction technology, and began drafting preliminary designs for the family’s home. The process has not been easy.

“Losing your house is the beginning of a nightmare, but it’s not the worst part,” she said.

Teyssier said she and her husband are selling a home in France to help pay off their mortgage here.

“I drew the house I want, but dreams have a cost,” she said.

First out of the gate

On a recent afternoon, Linda Johnson and a friend unloaded potted trees from the back of a pickup parked in the driveway of her Coffey Park home on Kerry Lane. It’s a cream-colored, two-story house that from the outside looks almost identical to the home she bought more than three decades ago.

Across the street, to her right and left and behind her, are homes in varying stages of construction, as well as empty lots. Johnson has been living in her rebuilt home since October, one year since the Tubbs fire leveled more than 1,400 homes in the neighborhood.

Each workday, the sounds of construction can be heard all around, except between 11:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m., when generators are turned off and boom boxes turned down as crews break for lunch. Their seats: half-built porches, stairwells, stacks of wood, drywall or other construction materials. At times, the construction frenzy can get loud, but Johnson doesn’t mind.

“Parking is a bit of an issue, but I want everyone to have a house. I’m not complaining,” she said.

Her home is among the 146 houses completed in Coffey Park, the bulk of the 196 finished rebuilds countywide. Another 672 homes are under construction in the neighborhood, according to the latest city figures.

Johnson said she decided early on she would rebuild her home. Buying a house elsewhere in Sonoma County was virtually impossible because of the lofty home prices.

She talked to a couple of large builders —Windsor-based Gallaher Homes and Santa Rosa-based Synergy Group by Christopherson — to see their home designs.

Early last year when many residents started hiring their own architects, engineers and builders to draft custom home designs, Johnson took the opposite approach.

She selected Santa Rosa’s APM Homes, whose predecessor Condiotti Enterprises built her previous house. Her insurance company covered the cost of rebuilding the same home she had, and she had enough leftover to do a few upgrades, including the flooring.

Although the new 1,800-square-foot home has the same footprint, the four-bedroom, three-bath house has a more modern, open feel between the kitchen and living room.

Inside the well-kept home, the din of construction fades. The home’s thicker walls and modern insulation afford Johnson some degree of tranquility.

But it’s not home yet, Johnson said.

“It will feel a lot more like home when everybody else’s homes are done,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com.

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