Rebuilding is continuing to pick up in the Sonoma Valley communities hit hardest in the wildfires, Glen Ellen and Kenwood, where neighborhood gatherings and the bounty of replanted gardens are buoying residents’ spirits.
In Glen Ellen, where 237 homes burned, construction is underway on 27 residences. Two miles to the north in Kenwood, where 139 homes were lost, work is underway on 29 residences. This marks an increase of five and nine homes, respectively, since Sept. 5, part of a continuing, if modest, trend that began in August.
Permit applications, a strong indicator of progress, are also up in the two neighborhoods. Builders filed applications to erect 63 homes in Glen Ellen and 46 in Kenwood, an increase of eight applications for both communities since Sept. 5.
So far, however, not one home has been completed in the valley, where 407 homes burned in all.
Celebrations of survival
With foundations being poured and framing going up, Valley communities marked the first anniversary of the wildfires with celebrations of survival.
Glen Ellen residents cheered as bulldozers and fire engines rolled in the parade at the annual Village Fair on Oct. 14. The previous week, fire survivors toasted with chardonnay at a firestorm remembrance block party on Oct. 9 on hard-hit O’Donnell Lane.
Residents of tight-knit Kenwood marked the anniversary by congregating at several locations in town, including the Kenwood Fire Department on Sonoma Highway, where VJB Vineyard & Cellars donated free pizza and salad.
Palooza Brewery and Gastropub, which served free beer and pizza to neighbors as the fire raged last year, offered free pizza all day. In the evening, it hosted a potluck dinner.
“We put out free pizzas and everyone brought food. The courtyard was full and everyone shared stories,” said Palooza manager Patrick Odenthal.
Litany of obstacles for rebuilders
Though the valley spirit is strong and activity is picking up, progress is hard-won for many reasons. Nearly all those who lost their homes are now familiar with a litany of obstacles to rebuilding.
The Army Corps of Engineers cleanup of O’Donnell Lane in Glen Ellen didn’t take place until February, more than four months after the firestorm. Next came soil tests, then geological tests and structural engineering studies. Burned trees had to be removed, plans for new homes drawn up and approved.
“Have you got your permit yet?” has replaced “How’s it going?” for many valley residents.
Green thumbs get helping hand
As they struggle with the long, drawn-out process of rebuilding homes, many are rebuilding their gardens and flower beds, a much quicker process.
A riot of yellow, white and purple flowers grows at the front entrance of Marjorie Everidge’s property on O’Donnell Lane, where she has lived since 1952. Sue Braito, a neighbor, has flowers and plants at the back of her property.
Steve Thomas and his husband, Mike Grace, replanted their garden after the Nuns fire destroyed the home they purchased on O’Donnell Lane just nine months earlier. Their garden has produced dozens of tomato plants, zucchini, yellow squash, green beans, eggplant, lettuce, carrots and beets — a bounty the couple have shared with their neighbors.
“I doubled the size of my garden because I felt like I’m not going to have (homebuilding) work to do anytime soon, so I might as well do this,” Thomas said.
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 anniversary coverage here.