For Claudine Kunkle, it took every bit of resolve she could muster to drive up to Elkstone Place in Fountaingrove. For months, she had strictly avoided going anywhere near the neighborhood where she had spent happy times with friends.
But it was a bright, breezy evening in summer, and there was a party going on at Matt and Megan Condron’s place that she couldn’t miss.
“Driving in, I got a little bit of panic,” she confessed. “I just wanted to turn around and get out of here.”
Walking in from her car along sidewalks empty of homes, she took her time. But as soon as she arrived at the Condrons’ and saw a big clutch of friends juggling shovels and glasses of champagne on the barren lot where the Condrons’ house once stood, she felt comforted.
Kunkle is still struggling with the aftermath of that night in October when the Tubbs fire ripped through the Fountaingrove area, leveling more than 1,400 homes in the neighborhood, including her own off Parker Hill Road. But on this July evening, there was a festive atmosphere in the empty Altaire subdivision as neighbors and friends gathered not to mourn their losses but to celebrate the rebuild.
It was the first of what chief organizer Tracy Weitzenberg, who lost her home on Southridge Drive in Fountaingrove, hopes will be a succession of “Shovels & Bubbles” rebuild parties aimed at helping stricken friends and families embrace the future. Matt Condron is her brother.
“I’m a glass is half-full type of person. I’m just going to focus on the next step. This is the only life we get, so I choose to be happy,” she said, surrounded by a gaggle of girlfriends, including Kunkle.
Weitzenberg is the daughter of former Santa Rosa Mayor Janet Condron. She’s now living with her parents while waiting to build a new house near them.
Getting friends and neighbors together in a positive way, she said, is part of the healing. And it’s not just happening in Altaire. Neighborhoods in other parts of the burn zone are holding or planning to hold parties to boost morale and symbolically reclaim their blocks and properties as foundations are laid and walls go up.
Brad Sherwood, one of several block captains in the fire-devastated Larkfield Estates in northeast Santa Rosa, said his neighborhood has been hosting meetings over fire-related issues. But in August he and another block captain, Shawn Ratliss, will co-host a rebuild barbecue. Aside from a quick update from the fire department, this party will be for fun and camaraderie.
“It’s just really important to stay connected and be there for each other because we’re all going through this and it’s really a rough-and-tumble time for all of us. The more we can do together, the better.”
Ratliss, who lived around the block from Sherwood, said it has always been a friendly neighborhood, where people show up with home-baked cookies at Christmas or leave pumpkin bread on your porch. One July Fourth, everyone gathered on their lawns with flags to cheer on a neighborhood parade with kids and strollers.
Former residents of Hennessy Place in Coffey Park have been gathering since Christmas, when they held their annual Christmas brunch at an Airbnb rental in Healdsburg.
This story is part of a monthly series in 2018 chronicling the rebuilding efforts in Sonoma County’s four fire zones: Coffey Park, Fountaingrove, the greater Mark West area and Sonoma Valley. Read all of the Rebuild North Bay coverage here
Read all of the PD's fire coverage here