Ravaged by wildfire, a California neighborhood takes stock

The engine came roaring back to life, despite the vehicle being partially burned and melted. And though their car may not look pretty, Christina Lopez and her husband concluded the fire-damaged Honda Civic was safe enough to drive.

Lopez said she was anxious to have her car so she could drive to work and take her 18-month-old son to day care. Her husband’s car was lost in the fire.

A locksmith had to make a new key because the previous one was lost, along with everything else they owned, inside their now-destroyed home.

Whether it’s getting a new key or picking up a replacement driver’s license or birth certificate, residents are busy with the essential but mundane tasks of rebuilding their lives after the worst set of wildfires in California history destroyed nearly 6,000 buildings and claimed 43 lives.

Entire subdivisions were destroyed, including Coffey Park in Santa Rosa, where 1,300 homes were lost.

It’s been more than a month since the Tubbs fire leveled this middle-class community that was home to teachers, police officers and firefighters.

“I thought I would come by and get my last closure before the cleanup happens,” said Katie Nilsen, who had been just two weeks from putting her home on the market after a lengthy remodel.

“We absolutely loved every moment and every aspect of this neighborhood,” she said.

New optimism

Things remain virtually untouched since the October 9 fire, but there are some striking visuals. Green grass is popping up in the middle of some charred lawns and the first excavators are arriving to clear out the debris — a process that will take many months; no one knows for sure.

But there is also a new level of optimism as the first insurance checks are beginning to arrive.

“A whole bunch of money,” said John Wimmer, who felt a bit relieved holding a large packet from Nationwide Insurance.

“We’ll put it in our trust, so when this is all cleared, we’ll be ready to rebuild,” he said, displaying an optimism that the neighborhood will eventually return to life.

But it’s clear the emotional pain is a constant burden.

“It’s sad. Can’t get back Grandma’s china. Can’t get back the pictures. Our life foundation has been disrupted tremendously,” said his wife, Jody Wimmer.

The search for keepsakes is an ongoing process. The sounds of shovels and rakes can be heard throughout the neighborhood.

No place to settle

There is also an ongoing search for short-term housing. Neighbors told us that finding an affordable rental home in the area is practically impossible.

Many are staying with friends and relatives until they figure out a solution.

“There’s just so many moving parts. It’s hard to sleep still. It’s just so much,” said Evan Kubota, who doesn’t think he will want to rebuild in Coffey Park. He is concerned with the lengthy timeline of not being settled and how it might impact his two young children.

“Go two blocks away and it’s business as usual. For us, (moving there) probably makes the most sense,” he said.

An army veteran who served in Iraq, Kubota said Coffey Park resembles a war zone.

“The amount of devastation here is on par. There’s just nothing left, ” he said just before resuming his digging through the rubble looking for lost military medals.