It has been almost two years since the devastating firestorms hit the North Bay in 2017, burning down 5,143 homes and leaving nothing but ash and debris in its wake. While to many the incident leaves behind memories of confusion and devastation, for the thousands who lost everything their journey is anywhere but over.
Many lots still lie vacant, their owners in limbo about whether to rebuild, move away, or sell. For underinsured homeowners, the fire left them with a mortgage and no home, and the financial impossibility to rebuild. For others, the trauma they endured and the fear of a potential fire happening again prompted them to start a new life elsewhere. For those who could, and made the decision to rebuild, the process has been painfully slow and it has taken almost two full years to finally move home. Here are the stories of two Santa Rosa couples: Bruce and Lisa Coats of Coffey Park, and Don and Mary Coover of Fountaingrove.
Even after rebuilding, “home” has taken on a new definition for those who have completed the journey. For Bruce and Lisa Coats of Coffey Park in Santa Rosa, the emotional stress has been the biggest challenge in the rebuild process, and trying to move forward without dwelling on the loss.
“It’s an emotional roller coaster that you go through,” says Bruce. “I’ve been doing work in this house and it didn’t feel like mine—it felt like I was doing work on someone else’s house. There was no connection. You have no more attachments. There’s nothing to make your house your home. Everything is brand new. That’s what makes your house your home—all the memories built inside it. The picture on the wall, or the little trinket in the cupboard, that meant something. When you don’t have any of that there is no connection.”
To gain a sense of connection to their new home, the Coats have been doing most of the interior finish work themselves. Besides saving them about $100,000, the quantity of time they’re spending there has helped them to connect and build new memories to the house, making it feel more like their home.
“Doing the interior work gave us that connection,” says Bruce. “After going through the sweat to do all this work we’re now finally starting to feel like, yes, this is our place.”
Keeping the same floor plan also helped them adjust more quickly to the new space and made it feel familiar. For the Coats, having the rooms in the same arrangement as they were before is helping them move past the trauma from two years ago.
Fleeing in fear
On that fateful night in October 2017, the Coats were awakened by the smell of smoke. They saw the orange glow in the distance but danger did not appear imminent. It wasn’t until embers started landing on brushes and shrubs around their property that they started to spring into action, hosing down their property and neighbors’ yards and putting out small spot fires. Once the police and fire departments started urging all residents in the area to evacuate did they finally realize the enormity of the situation. They quickly packed a few items, grabbed their two dogs and an African Grey parrot, and got in their car to leave.
“Sometime during this whole event, the wind had blown part of our tree down across our front driveway,” recalls Lisa. “So we weren’t able to drive out of the driveway. Bruce directed me out through the neighbor’s yard. Then a block down we got into a traffic jam and were stopped for about half an hour. It seemed much longer at the time.”
While they were waiting Bruce ran back to the house to get Lisa’s car out. By the time he got it out through the neighbors yard, their other neighbor’s house was already fully engulfed in flames. At that point they still didn’t know they would lose everything.
The decision to rebuild
The first week the Coats stayed with Bruce’s sister in Rohnert Park and then looked for a longer-term solution. A friend who had some extra space in Santa Rosa let the Coats stay with him, and they remained there for about a year-and-a-half, until moving into an apartment during the final completion of the house. That first week the Coats had a lot of sleepless nights. They spent that time compiling lists of all their belongings, room by room, for insurance purposes. They credit this action, of jumping immediately into the paperwork required, to the expediency in which they were able to more forward with the rebuild process.
However, initially they weren’t sure if they even wanted to rebuild.
“We were debating whether or not to do it,” says Bruce. “Then we took a trip to Sedona, and we loved it there. But when we came back the builder we had already made contact with asked us what we wanted to do. At that moment, we felt pressured to make a decision and that’s when we decided to go ahead and rebuild. That has been a huge journey.”
And the journey has not always been a pleasant one. Delays, recurring water leaks, the emotional stress and the feeling of limbo has all contributed to a lot of frustration over the past two years.
“I’ve had a few people say to me, ‘Well, at least you’re getting a new house out of all of this’,” says Bruce. “But if I could turn back the clock and keep my old house, I’d much rather have that. We had just remodeled the kitchen. We had remodeled some bathrooms. We did a lot of exterior work and the yard. We had the house where we wanted it and then all of a sudden it was taken away, and we’re having to do it all over again. It’s a year of delay in your life.”
The Coats’ original home was built in 1984, and many building codes and regulations changed since then, most notably sprinkler systems for fires. Obviously, home prices have also changed drastically in that time, even within the seven years that the Coats owned their home. However, their insurance did not necessarily reflect those changes.
“Three months before the fires we had the house appraised for a refinance at $530,000, but the coverage was only for $290,000,” says Bruce. “It was dated back when we bought the house. When we did our first refinance and remodeled our whole kitchen we, as new first time buyers, didn’t know we should have gone to our insurance to tell them we just remodeled our kitchen and want to make sure our insurance will cover rebuild…We’re willing to take blame that we didn’t do anything, but nobody pointed it out to us that we should have upped our insurance at least to cost to rebuild. The cost of materials have gone up so fast.”
While facing the overwhelming emotions and stress has posed the biggest challenge, dealing with insurance is not far behind. For many, whether underinsured or not, trying to recoup the full monetary value of their personal property has been an ordeal. The challenge for homeowners is trying to remember every single item in their homes, which many insurance companies require, and also in disputing their coverage with their providers.
“At first we weren’t getting anywhere with insurance,” says Bruce. “We were talking to adjuster after adjuster. We had gone through six adjusters. They didn’t want to pay 100 percent of our personal property, even though our contract states we’ll get 100 percent. They’d drag it on forever until you collapse and say, ‘Fine, just give me the 75 percent.’”
After writing a heartfelt letter to the chief executive of their insurance company, the Coats finally received 100 percent of the personal property for which they were covered.
Fear from afar
As Coffey Park was just starting to burn, the Fountaingrove area east of Highway 101 in Santa Rosa was already fully engulfed in flames. While most people in the area were fleeing from the fires with only the clothes on their backs, Don and Mary Coover considered themselves fortunate. They were visiting friends in North Carolina at the time and didn’t know what had happened until hearing the news on their hotel lobby television Monday morning. Though the media reported that Santa Rosa was on fire and the Fountaingrove area was gone, the Coovers were in disbelief and hoped the media had overdramatized what happened.
“Then my sister, who lives here in town, called and asked, ‘Did you guys get out?’” recalls Don. “Then our son, who lives in Santa Cruz, called and wanted to know if we had heard what had happened.”
“The third call was from our insurance agent,” says Mary. “He had tried calling the house and there was no answer, so he was pretty sure the house was gone. He told us to immediately get a pad of paper and a pen while everything was fresh in our minds and start making a list of all the contents of our house. So that’s what we did for the rest of the trip. I sat in the car, [Don] drove, and dictated to me. We went room by room.”
Because they were on a trip, they felt lucky to at least have two suitcases, about a week’s worth of clothing. And because Don has had two heart transplants and a kidney transplant, they had all his medications as well. In addition, one of their cars was parked at the airport, so they still had transportation.
When they returned to witness the destruction, the landscape that awaited them was surreal and hardly recognizable. Their son had driven up previously and had informed them that there was nothing left—even their cast iron pots didn’t survive and a coin collection inside a safe was melted together and unrecognizable. As they moved through the sadness and devastation of those early days and weeks, however, the Coovers were impressed with the response of the community, the city, and the county.
“Right after the fire the City of Santa Rosa had set up a meeting place in the old Press Democrat building for everyone who had lost their home,” says Mary. “It was all set up perfectly. You could go talk to the right person if you lost your social security card like I did, or your driver’s license with the DMV. And there were people outside who literally had boxes of free things such as toothpaste, bars of soap, Kleenex, or toilet paper. You don’t think about that, but we all needed those things. The community was wonderful.”
Fortunately a friend had called them while they were still on the East Coast, offering their spare bedroom since by the time they returned to Sonoma County there was no hotel room to be found. After staying with those friends for three weeks they moved into an apartment and lived there through the following September. Then they moved again to another apartment only about a mile from their building lot. Currently, their home is scheduled for completion by about September—almost two years since the fires.
“I don’t think people, who haven’t lost their home, understand the full-time hassle that it is to go through the building process through an insurance company,” says Mary. “People build homes all the time. But to be competing with 5,300 other people at the same time and then to deal with insurance is an absolute nightmare.”
Though friends had suggested starting fresh and moving someplace else, the Coovers wanted to stay and rebuild their home. Don was born and raised in the area and has all his doctors here, and Mary has lived in Santa Rosa for 50 years. However, many in the neighborhood have not followed suit. Of the nine neighbors on their court, only two appear to be rebuilding. The Coovers know many others who have moved away, or are holding on to their property until prices increase in hopes of recouping some the value from before the fire.
“The most difficult part of rebuilding, other than the emotional part, is dealing with the insurance aspect of it,” says Don. “Building when you’re dealing with an insurance company is 10 times worse.”
During the planning process of their new home, the Coovers changed the layout of their previous two-story home into a one-story house. According to the couple, about $140,000 of their building costs went to code upgrades—some for code changes since the house was built 20 years ago and some for new city ordinances since the fires.
“Everybody has to have sprinkler systems in their house,” says Mary. “You cannot have any eves around the outside because that’s where the fire picked up underneath the roof line. Building materials have to be Hardie board or stucco, and fencing that connects to the house has to be made of certain, noncombustible material.”
As October marks the two-year anniversary of the 2017 firestorm, both the Coovers and the Coats find themselves reflecting on the rebuild process and the many blessings they’ve experienced along the way.
Don and Mary credit their relationship with each other, as well as the support from friends and family, for helping them get through the process. “You realize your mate, your best friend, or your spouse is so important in a time like this,” says Don. “If you had to handle it all by yourself you couldn’t do it.”
As for the Coats, maintaining a positive attitude during the process helped them through the darkest of times. Says Lisa, “On most of my Facebook posts, post fire, I would add this line, ‘We feel blessed, we feel loved. We will rise from these ashes.’”
And during the rebuild process, they have come to know their neighbors on a whole different level. Before the fires, the Coats mostly kept to themselves, not having children in the neighborhood like many others on their street.
“Now we know a lot of our neighbors,” says Lisa. “It’s been a real blessing. It’s been one of the great things that has come of this—we have some awesome new friends. We’re there supporting each other. Everyone is going through the same emotions.”
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