Rebuild North Bay: Larkfield group raises money to replace burned trees

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Shawn Ratliff grew up in Alaska, building tree forts, camping and playing among trees.

Seven years ago, the abundance of mature trees — redwoods, oaks, crepe myrtle and walnut trees left over from a former walnut orchard — drew him to Larkfield Estates, a subdivision built in the 1960s and ’70s.

“We basically bought the house because of the trees,” Ratliff said.

The house on Oxford Court, which Shawn and Christine Ratliff had renovated from the bare wood framing, was among the 163 Larkfield Estates homes incinerated by the Tubbs fire on Oct. 9, 2017, the day after their 12th wedding anniversary.

Overall, the Tubbs fire destroyed 4,651 homes, including 1,729 in the greater Mark West-Larkfield area.

The raging inferno, which raced from Calistoga to Santa Rosa in just over four hours, burning up an acre a minute, also denuded the Larkfield Estates landscape, where brightly colored new homes are now sprouting like spring flowers on a nearly barren plain.

The neighborhood looks, Christine Ratliff said, like “someone went in and clearcut the trees and started a housing development.”

And the Ratliffs, who moved to Larkfield Estates in 2012, are spearheading a campaign that has raised more than $100,000 to put trees back on the land, bolstered by donations from the Windsor Rotary Club, Sonoma County Vintners Foundation and the United Way of the Wine Country.

“The environment is one of our core missions,” said Michael Haney, executive director of the vintners group, which contributed $25,000. “This project really helps bring back a sense of home to their neighborhood.”

The Rotarians gave $50,000 and United Way’s early $15,000 donation “got us all excited,” Shawn Ratliff said.

There were a dozen trees on the Ratliffs’ quarter-acre lot, including a 100-foot redwood that was visible from the intersection of Mark West Springs Road and Old Redwood Highway.

Loss of homes, pets and possessions was foremost among the post-fire sorrows of the family and their neighbors, but the missing foliage — source of shade, privacy and ambiance — was “really kind of an unexpected source of grief,” Christine Ratliff said.

She found that remarkable because before the fire she “wouldn’t have considered myself a tree hugger.”

It turned out to be a shared sentiment among the Ratliffs and five other Larkfield Estates residents who formed the Larkfield Resilience Fund last August. The nonprofit group has other interests, but starting the Neighborhood Greening Project was an “easy first choice,” she said.

“Pretty much everybody brought up the loss of the trees,” her husband said.

“I like everything about it,” said Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore, whose district includes Larkfield and who gave $1,000 in campaign funds to the tree project. “It’s the epitome of rebuilding a stronger community.”

Neighbors who “have gone through hell and back together” have banded together to help their area “come back and be beautiful,” he said.

Ten burned homes have been rebuilt, 177 are under construction and permits have been issued for 65 homes in the Mark West-Larkfield area, according to Permit Sonoma.

The idea is to provide vouchers covering the cost of a 12- to 18-foot tree purchased from Urban Tree Farm in Fulton to residents who enroll in the program. That size tree, contained in a 24-inch square box, is the largest a person can plant without heavy equipment and costs up to $250.

Initially, the tree project was intended to provide one tree for every Larkfield Estates resident, but the Ratliffs said the fundraising success prompted the group to offer it throughout the Larkfield-Wikiup area.

Years from now, when their daughters, ages 2 and 4, and the trees have grown up, “we’ll be able to drive around the neighborhood and see what we’ve accomplished,” Shawn Ratliff said.

Ratliff, who runs a family-owned janitorial service in Calistoga, is president of the Larkfield Resilience Fund and Christine is secretary-treasurer.

Brad Sherwood is vice president and the directors are Haley Skerrett, Stan Goodell, Lisa Newman and Katrina Lassen — all of them married with children.

Donations to the Neighborhood Greening Project and applications for a tree may be made at the Resilience Fund’s website at larkfieldfund.com.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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