Burned Santa Rosa neighborhoods fight fire fears with gatherings

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Special coverage

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

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.

Special coverage

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

But Scott Wise, who bought his Coffey Park house when it was brand-new nearly 30 years ago and raised three kids there, has held regular street parties in the cul-de-sac since the fire to mark events and holidays. On Easter, they rented a jump house and had an egg hunt for kids, and a small libations hunt for the grown-ups. As houses rise again, there will be more events and milestones to celebrate.

“We set up a table and chairs right in the middle of the road. One of our friends brought a boom box that works off Bluetooth from the phone,” Wise said. “We keep it light. It’s just good to see everybody, and it’s therapeutic for all of us. Many of us have gone through life, death, divorce and raising kids together.”

At the Altaire Bubbles & Shovels rebuild party, kids who have been separated for months ran freely among the empty lots, unhindered by fences and walls. Adults talked and got caught up.

“There’s a reason you surround yourself with good people — so you can bounce back from things you could never imagine,” Weitzenberg said. “People are resilient.”

Neighbors in Altaire have been meeting for months over serious rebuild issues. But this was the first social gathering since the fire sent them scattering. Under a canopy — the only roof of any kind where 57 homes once stood — they toasted with champagne and beer to the re-emergence of their neighborhood.

“It’s fun to see the progress and know you can head back to what you have before. It’s a positive point as opposed to negativity, which we’ve been dealing with a for a long time,” said Matt Condron. He and 41 neighbors signed with San Ramon-based Lafferty Communities to rebuild most of Altaire.

The Condrons will be among the last in line. All that remains of their home are two stone pillars that will become part of their new backyard. But he is happy to celebrate the soon-to-be-laid foundation for his neighbors Ligaya and Matt Park, whose home looked down on his from a hill across the street. They often joked about running a zip line down between their two houses for the kids, who played together.

“Through this process I definitely feel like I’ve made more connection with my neighborhood than ever before,” said Matt Park, a psychologist with Santa Rosa City Schools. “It will be wonderful to do this at each step in the rebuild process. I will attend stuff for friends as they get to each phase, and when everything is rebuilt there will be quite a few housewarming parties down the line.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at 707-521-5204 or megmcconahey@pressdemocrat.com.

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