Rebuilding after the fires: A Kenwood family’s loss and new dream

Todd and Mary Caughey at the site of their Kenwood home. It burnt to the ground during the October firestorm, and was only recently pronounced cleared of all toxic debris. They are plan to rebuild.(Photo by Robbi Pengelly/Index-Tribune)


When Todd and Mary Caughey moved into their Kenwood home 22 years ago, they planted half a dozen coastal redwood trees on their 1-acre property, a reflection that they were ready to put down roots and raise their family.

Their son and daughter are now in high school. But their home was lost to the fires that burned through Sonoma Valley and Bennett Valley in October, destroying 652 homes in Kenwood, Glen Ellen and other parts of the two valleys.

The loss for the Caugheys included those prized redwoods, which remained standing but were sustained enough damage to raise concern that they would topple.

So the couple hired a woodworker to mill lumber from the trees, cutting them into 4-inch thick boards — shiny planks that are a first step toward the new home the family intends to build on the property. That dream is likely two to three years away, said Mary Caughey, 49.

“It’s unreal. You never in a million years guess you would be doing this at this age. Especially while raising teenagers,” she said.

Little goes smoothly

First, as with all other fire survivors contemplating rebuilding, the debris cleanup needed to happen. In Bennett and Sonoma valleys, including Kenwood and Glen Ellen, all but about two dozen of the properties signed up for government cleanup remained to be cleared, according to the Army Corps of Engineers, which overseeing the largest number of projects in the region.

For the Caugheys, that step came on Jan. 2. Mary was upbeat about watching it all disappear, but her concern grew when the excavator kept digging.

“They scraped super deep,” she said. “It’s like a swimming pool.”

Mary was told by the Environmental Protection Agency that the standard for removal is 6- to 12-inches down and that’s what happened on the surrounding 23 burned home sites in their neighborhood.

The Caugheys’ lot was dug much deeper, in some places as deep as four feet. A locally based subcontractor for AshBritt Environmental, which is handling debris removal for the Army Corps, did the cleanup.

Caughey believes they removed too much dirt, and the couple worry about increased building costs because the ground will need to be made level with engineered fill and compacted.

“We don’t know if insurance will cover this,” Mary Caughey said.

The couple were insured, but like many homeowners affected by the fires they are worried their policy won’t cover the full cost of rebuilding.

“I don’t know exactly what this is all going to cost, but I know the insurance is not going to be enough to get us back to what we had,” Mary Caughey said.

In addition to the four-bedroom ranch-style house, there was a small barn where they kept chickens, Mary’s honeybee hives, Todd’s cabernet sauvignon vineyard and the landscaping — the redwoods, walnut, olive and fruit trees.

Some of the vines survived, and a rose bush burned to the ground is showing a few shoots. Mustard weed and daffodils have bloomed. Some of her beekeeping equipment made it through, but looters stole it.

Mary Caughey, a business office manager at Rincon Valley School, remains upbeat, waving her arm in the direction of Sugarloaf Mountain to the east and laughing. The trees that used to block their parts of their vista of the Mayacamas Mountains are gone.

“At least the view is better now,” she said.

Rebuilding hurdles

A drive around the Sonoma Valley neighborhoods that suffered the greatest devastation, especially Kenwood and Glen Ellen, shows only the beginning stages of recovery. Debris removal is still going on in some places and there are no signs yet of structural rebuilding. One neighborhood joined together to start replanting trees. Some owners are moving ahead with the design and permit process, and others are undecided about rebuilding.

The Caugheys have hired an architect and a building contractor and the design for their new, smaller home is almost complete. Mary said the new house will be “very different” than their old house, built in 1979.

“The kids are launching. They will be off to college. This house will be much smaller, more efficient, solar, sustainable, easier to heat and clean,” she said.

What they don’t have yet are building permits. “The county said they were going to be lenient and they are putting our architect through the wringer,” she said.

What they don’t have yet are building permits. “The county said they were going to be lenient and they are putting our architect through the wringer,” she said.

The couple had hoped to build a small in-law unit on their property for their mothers but their plan was rejected by the county, Mary Caughey said.

Missing privacy

The family are renting a home in Kenwood, but they were reluctant to share more details about that spot or their burned site to safeguard their property.

“We are very private people,” Mary Caughey said. Or, they were.

They ran from their home in the middle of the night with flames advancing on the property’s edge. They took almost nothing. The computer with thousands of family photos was lost in the blaze.

They returned two days later to find mostly ash.

Mary headed straight to where her kitchen once was, to the spot by the sink where she placed her diamond wedding ring in a drawer when she washed the dishes. Amazingly, she reached down and discovered the ring.

“I found it!” she said through tears.

The moment was captured by Jeff Chiu, an Associated Press photographer working in the fire zone — and that was attention very much unwanted in the moment.

“I was screaming at him, ‘Leave us alone!’” Caughey recalled.

The photograph — Caughey finding the ring, her son, Harrison, alongside her — ran in many newspapers, including the front page of the London Daily Mail and in a paper in Tokyo. Another Chiu photo of Todd comforting their grieving daughter, Ella, ran on the front page of the Wall Street Journal.

At first Mary felt it was an intrusion, but Chiu, a veteran news photographer, explained he was doing his job, documenting the toll from the worst wildfires in California history. He later sent the family printed copies of his shots.

“The number of people who reached out to us because they saw those photos was unbelievable,” she said. “I heard from people I hadn’t seen in 30 years. My cousin in Ireland saw the photo. It was wonderful to hear from them.”

She sent Chiu an email, thanking him.

It’s still home

Mary Caughey said the family feel confident in their decision to rebuild.

“We only considered not rebuilding for about 10 minutes,” she said. “The kids really wanted to rebuild. We are very vested in our property and our community. And we love our vineyard.”

But it’s not such a straightforward decision for many in the fire zone, where for sale signs pop up and buyers are scooping up burned properties. The Caugheys said they have been approached numerous times by strangers when visiting their lot.

“Can we buy your lot? Are you selling? Do you know if anyone else is selling?”

“It’s annoying,” she said, but adds that some of her neighbors are still “on the fence” about rebuilding. “Some are waiting it out to see how the insurance goes,” she said. “For some it is age dependent. Some of those in their 70s and up are not rebuilding.”

It’s comforting to speak to neighbors when they visit. Perhaps because only those who have gone through this experience who can truly understand it. They talk about insurance issues, design plans, soil tests. They ask each other how they are doing and then truly listen.

Todd and Mary find there are plenty of chores to be done at the property. Removing dead shrubs and fruit trees and ripping out destroyed drip lines. Pruning the vines. “We are trying to evaluate what is still living, what we will be able to salvage,” she said.

On Friday nights, the couple go to their property and have a beer. It’s a homey thing to do, and it that makes them feel a little better. Hopeful, even.

Enough boards will come from the milled redwoods to make two tables, one for indoor dining and one for a picnic table outside. The trees from their past will become a piece of their future, a gathering place for the family to make new memories.