Rebuild Sonoma County: Some fire survivors see opportunity to build dream house

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Special coverage

This story is part of a monthly series in 2019 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.

Les and Robin Proteau had a lot going on when the Tubbs fire leapt across Highway 101 in the early hours of Oct. 9, 2017, and destroyed their home of nearly 40 years. A crew was coming that week in 2017 to install solar panels. The couple was supposed to depart on a cruise from Florida to San Francisco by way of the Panama Canal.

But the wildfire swept away their home on Ridgecrest Court along with 1,472 others in Coffey Park.

“The shocker for me was when we went back in the first time,” said Les Proteau. “We had a hard time locating (the house) because of all the damage.”

As luck would have it, the Proteaus’ home had been appraised less than four days before it was destroyed. The appraiser had detailed photos and measurements that helped the couple settle their insurance claims faster. Soon, they were deciding how exactly they wanted to rebuild their home.

“Over the years, we had built an addition above the garage and remodeled interiors to make it more adaptable to us,” Proteau said. “After the fire, we decided to design and build what we wanted. Not what we fit inside, but what fits us.”

In the Santa Rosa neighborhoods hardest hit by fire, the rebuild effort has been steadily gaining momentum. Dozens of fire survivors have moved back into rebuilt homes in Coffey Park and Fountaingrove. For homeowners who were adequately insured, the rebuilding process has been a rare opportunity to reimagine their homes from top to bottom.

A former painter and North Bay union representative, Proteau is involved in each stage of the construction process as the owner-builder. He said the new home accounts for issues that had long bothered the couple about their old home, like a dim interior with limited natural light. The new house has tall, south-facing windows and 12-foot ceilings with exposed wood beams.

Hardwood flooring, an induction range stovetop and roll-in shower without a curb will make the home comfortable and convenient as the couple gets older. The Proteaus’ three children are adults, so the new design eliminated a bedroom in favor of another full bath.

“My wife says, ‘Hey, you’ve always wanted to build a house,’ ” Proteau said with a laugh. “But I told her, ‘I didn’t want to have it happen like this.’ ”

Building hope

Justin Calaway and his wife, Christine, designed a home with more space for hosting friends and neighbors on Santiago Drive in Coffey Park. Working with a builder, the Calaways were able to expand the home’s front porch to 260 square feet.

“The city didn’t have our plans, so we had to build from scratch,” Calaway said. “(The builder) asked ‘What do you want?’ We loved our house, but unfortunately we weren’t able to build it the same way.”

The Calaways’ house will feature a sweeping archway, expanded kitchen, angled ceilings, a bay window in the master bedroom, a large back porch and a walk-in closet for their daughter, Sophia. Justin Calaway said a flexible work schedule has allowed him to track the project and work closely with the builder. He visits the homesite most days.

“It’s very exciting,” Calaway said. “We can’t wait to move home, get settled and be back with our friends and neighbors. It’s difficult to get settled somewhere when you know you’re not going to stay there long.”

Special coverage

This story is part of a monthly series in 2019 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.

Air of excitement

For Marlene and Phil Demery of Fountaingrove, feelings of sadness and loss after the fires have been overtaken by excitement.

Both retired engineers, the Demerys hired within two days of the Tubbs fire a contractor to rebuild their home. On March 3, they plan to move into a new home at the same Banbury Court address.

The home’s original Tuscan-style sandstone exterior is now gray stucco and tile. A stone patio area in the front yard replaces the original pathways with planters. Inside, the home has a larger dining room, repositioned windows and radiant heating in the floors, a feature Marlene grew to love at the couple’s rental property.

Though it was a challenging year, Marlene Demery said the rebuild process helped them cope with the loss of prized possessions and memories accumulated over more than a decade in their home.

“We’re still sad a lot, because you can’t get back 15 months of life,” she said. “But you have to make lemonade out of lemons.”

‘Dream house’

Andrea Noll and her husband, Mike Biagini, moved into their newly rebuilt home a day before Thanksgiving. It’s far different from the home they lost to the Tubbs fire.

What was a modest and comfortable home on Tuliptree Road is now the couple’s dream house, complete with 800 additional feet of living space. Noll said she and her husband reached the decision to rebuild — and make improvements — soon after the fires.

“For Mike and I, we need to keep moving forward,” Noll said. “There’s no time to sit around and dwell on the past. We have to keep moving forward.”

The new house was designed with an additional master bedroom and bathroom, wide doors and bathtubs to better accommodate Noll’s 88-year-old mother, who lost her own home to the fire in the Wikiup hills, and a granddaughter who uses a wheelchair.

“It was an opportunity to build whatever we wanted,” she said. “We looked at plans and drew the house we dreamed of. Then we spent the next eight months building it.”

Noll said she and her husband are still surprised to wake up in a new home that is fully tailored to their needs and living style.

“This is the light that came from the darkness,” Noll said. “Here we are: alive, happy, and we have this beautiful home we thought we’d never have.”

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