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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

Knock on the Caparros’ aluminum door and they’re likely to invite you into their new Petaluma home. Just use the boot brush to kick off the mud and mind the short attached staircase on the way in.

The Caparros are among about 1,500 families from the Fountaingrove area — and more than 5,100 from the whole of Sonoma County — whose homes were destroyed in the October Northern California wildfires. Like many of them, the married couple of 47 years had no immediate solution after losing their Turnberry Circle home of 26 years and nearly everything in it.

A few days in hotels told them they needed to come up with a different plan. In their 70s and believing they’d be wasting their time competing to find an apartment or condo in an already over-saturated rental market, the Caparros found a campground space at the Petaluma KOA and bought an RV while deciding on their next steps.

They weren’t alone choosing that option. Area campgrounds reported a rush on bookings in the immediate aftermath of the fires. Evacuees primarily landed at the Petaluma KOA and Casini Ranch Family Campground in Duncans Mills, both of which offered reduced long-term rates to victims, while others were sent to River Bend Resort in Forestville.

“When the fires were actively happening, we already had reservations, so we called and suggested people not come because of the situation and to free up more sites for evacuees,” said Sharon Kennedy, reservations manager at Casini Ranch. “We had a second wave of campers as well as landlords lost their homes and they moved out tenants, so the tenants were displaced and the landlords went back to their rentals.”

Of the 16,500 applications filed with the Federal Emergency Management Agency for government assistance, about 3,200 were deemed eligible for temporary housing.

FEMA figures released earlier this month showed that only 189 ended up saying they needed it after the disaster agency initially mobilized to bring 1,000 mobile homes and trailers into Northern California to fulfill the potential demand.

Just over 50 applicants were housed in apartments leased by the federal government, while approximately 80 more ended up in RV spaces at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in southeast Santa Rosa. Another 38 RV spots there have gone unused with space for 50 more available on the old ballfield.

“I didn’t think we had a choice, I had to buy this thing,” Rudy Caparros said of their 33-foot Fleetwood RV. “We went from about 4,000 square feet down to about 300, so it’s an adjustment. It’s not the worst thing in the world — it beats living in a motel room, I’ll guarantee that, and we didn’t want to move in with family.”

The diesel-powered motor home has a slew of amenities: three beds, four televisions, wood cabinets, in-unit washer and dryer, a large combination freezer-refrigerator and a gas fireplace. The Caparros added a countertop oven and Kuerig coffee maker.

“It’s a place to live,” Carol Caparros said. “And hey, it’s better than some other alternatives. You know what, it’s pretty luxurious considering.”

Others such as Joe Riera, who lost his home in Mark West Estates, found his own short-term housing at his son’s small duplex in neighboring Napa County while he worked through his insurance coverage and what he needed to do to get the rebuilding process underway. He bought a new 35-foot luxury travel trailer that he’s towed around to various campsites, until landing at his current location just a few spaces away from the Caparros at the Petaluma KOA for less than the monthly rent of a local apartment.

“I’ve always wanted one, so instead of using my loss of use that the insurance company is giving me and just paying rent, I figure I might as well let them pay for it,” said the 57-year-old commercial airline pilot. “I am definitely keeping it. I told my architect you’re going to build my house around it as soon as I pick it out.”

About six RVs directly related to the fires are still parked at Casini Ranch on a half-price discount, though Kennedy noted the limited long-term stays it manages end April 30.

A dozen or so remain in Petaluma for the time being, paying about $1,600 a month for extended-stay RV spaces.

Riera plans to be out at month’s end, while the Caparros will be on-site through April as they await a rental home in Santa Rosa. They intend to sell the RV then.

“We’re stuck here,” Rudy Caparros said. “But this has worked out for us. We’re better off than a lot of people, we’re in good shape. We’ll survive.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or at kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

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