Vietnam veteran receives replacements for military medals destroyed in Tubbs fire

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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.

Gary Bayless is thinking about getting a cat. It’s a weird choice for a former bird owner, but Bayless has encountered a mouse problem so large that he can’t let allegiances stand in the way of a solution.

And he needs one. Nearly two years after fire destroyed his home — and contributed to his late Alexandrine parakeet’s death — the snakes haven’t returned to the Michele Way area of the Mark West neighborhood northeast of Santa Rosa. At least, they haven’t returned in such numbers as to cut down on the dozens of mice Bayless has found while rebuilding his stately, 2,100-square-foot log home.

There’s some evidence of this. A 2012 University of Arkansas study found a local timber rattlesnake population decimated by fire and unable to recover for more than a decade. The fire occurred while snakes were active and out of their burrows, which would have been the case in Sonoma County in October 2017.

With snake numbers down, the mouse population is liable to explode.

So, the cat.

“An outside cat. A mouser,” Bayless said.

Bayless’ goal, like many of his five dozen or so neighbors, is to bring balance back to the neighborhood — to restore order and vitality. What was it like two years ago? He’d like to go back. That’s why, on Monday, Bayless met Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, for the first time.

At Thompson’s north Santa Rosa office, Bayless received replacements for the medals and ribbons he earned in Vietnam in the Navy.

“It’s important, for my sons, that when I go, that they would have something like that that they could have,” said Bayless, 70, who has four grown sons and seven grandchildren.

“I wanted them to be proud of the fact that their dad was a veteran,” Bayless said.

But the military doesn’t like replacing medals or ribbons, complicating matters for Bayless, who had previously lost his and had them replaced three years ago.

“They’ll do it…once,” Bayless said, emphasizing the “once.”

So when the medals, along with his house, a couple of cars were lost in the Tubbs fire, he didn’t get very far when he sought to replace them again.

A mutual friend and some good luck brought Thompson into the fold, and yielded a solution: Four medals and their corresponding ribbons, as well as an honorable discharge pin, have been replaced for Bayless again.

Thompson laughed when asked if all it took was a phone call. There’s a process for congressmen, too, it turns out. But it worked out.

“Every award or commendation somebody got is important,” Thompson, a Vietnam combat veteran, said in an interview. “I was in the service. I served in combat. It’s part of your life. It’s reflective of your life and your history.”

Gary Bayless married his wife, Lynda, around Christmas a few weeks after getting back from Vietnam.

It was only after Lynda took a eerie reconnaissance drive around their neighborhood Oct. 8, 2017 that the couple fled the fire that would eventually take their home.

Bayless said he didn’t really think about whether the log home he built by hand 40-plus years ago would be there when they got back. They packed a couple of photo albums and the nearly 30-year-old parakeet, Pell Mel. He didn’t think about the medals. They were far from the only thing lost. Bayless rattled off a list, including a hope chest, mementos, crystal, silver and China.

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.

“They were all displayed in the house,” Bayless said. “Everybody loved coming here.”

If he had it to do over again, Bayless said he’d take everything — or nothing.

His was one of 1,729 homes destroyed by fire in the greater Mark West-Larkfield area, and the Baylesses are among the first residents to move into rebuilt homes. Just 57 have been completed, with another 248 under construction. Permits have been issued for 74 more.

The Baylesses’ house was rebuilt on the same footprint as the first one. Gary and Lynda slept in their new house for the first time July 18, the same day they received their occupancy permit from Sonoma County.

“All we felt…was the certainty we belonged here,” Lynda Bayless said in a previous interview. “We needed to come back home, and heal. We recognized a forever bond to this bit of earth around us.”

Gary echoed those sentiments while conducting a brief tour of the newly built home and its wraparound deck.

He’s still got some work to do: a few trees to chop down, a backsplash to create in the kitchen.

But there are signs of a return to normal. A patch of grass big enough for a couple of picnic blankets shines bright and green in the afternoon sun.

They’ll host family, friends and more for a celebration in August, entertaining guests as they once did.

But there’s still the mouse problem.

Christopher Howey, a researcher and assistant professor at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania, said unlike a lot of wildlife, snakes aren’t as adapted to fleeing fires. Howey said it took 10-15 years before populations of timber rattlesnakes returned to pre-fire levels in one study, by University of Arkansas professor Steven Beaupre.

There’s also the problem of post-fire forest being the perfect environment for grasses to take off, meaning more food and hiding places for mice.

“So you could still have snakes, but maybe not enough to keep up with the huge boom in the small mammal population.”

Sonoma County has western rattlesnakes instead of timber rattlesnakes.

It also has gopher snakes, king snakes, northern rubber boas and racers — all of which enjoy munching on mice. But they’re not keeping up at this point, Bayless said, and he’s getting tired of catching and releasing mice.

So maybe it’s time to get a cat.

Neighborhoods see construction surge

A month ago, just 29 of the more than 1,700 homes that destroyed by fire in the Mark West and Larkfield neighborhoods had been rebuilt.

That number has nearly doubled in the past month, with 57 homes rebuilt and more on the way.

There are 248 under construction compared to 208 in June, and there are 74 more with permits awaiting construction.

The Mark West-Larkfield construction surge mirrors an even greater surge in the Fountaingrove neighborhood, which went from 40 finished homes to 106 in the past month.

“Fire survivors and contractors have been doing a fantastic job getting homes completed despite an extended rainy season,” Permit Sonoma Director Tennis Wick said in an email. “Builders understand our common customers want to get back home before the school year begins and the insurance payment ends. Our job is to support them.”

You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or tyler.silvy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @tylersilvy.

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