One newly constructed home stands in a neighborhood destroyed by the Tubbs Fire one year earlier on Oct. 8, 2018, in Santa Rosa. Tubbs Fire survivors like Vita Iskandar - who hasn't rebuilt herself yet - are helping victims of this year's devastating fires in Redding. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
One newly constructed home stands in a neighborhood destroyed by the Tubbs Fire one year earlier on Oct. 8, 2018, in Santa Rosa. Tubbs Fire survivors like Vita Iskandar - who hasn't rebuilt herself yet - are helping victims of this year's devastating fires in Redding. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Santa Rosa Wildfire Survivors Pay It Forward by Helping Others

Santa Rosa Wildfire Survivors Pay It Forward by Helping Others

4 min

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t’s been a year since the deadly North Bay Fires, but head to any burned down neighborhood in Santa Rosa, and you might not think so. Most people haven’t even started rebuilding their homes yet.

Even as those survivors are in the thick of their own insurance claims, they’re helping survivors of this summer’s wildfires navigate their recovery.

Vita Iskandar lost her Santa Rosa home in last year's Tubbs Fire — the most destructive fire in California history. Her fire story is long from over, but it begins with teamwork.

"When we were all evacuating, we were all out on the street," Iskandar said. "We all put eyes on each other to make sure that we all accounted for everybody and we would get out."

A year later, only one house in her neighborhood has been rebuilt. It’s hard to visualize anything other than flat earth and scorched trees, but Iskandar remembers.

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"The front of our yard was sort of an English countryside theme," she said. "It was very verdant with rosemary and lavender and a recently planted peach tree. Lots and lots of poppies every summer."

Iskandar and her partner don’t even know if they’ll rebuild their home of 15 years. It all depends on how much money they get from their insurance.

"We really want to move on," Iskandar said. "We're just stuck."

A lot of their neighbors are in the same position. Many, especially older residents, have given up and sold their lots.

"They couldn’t imagine spending their twilight years rebuilding," Iskandar explained. "And that’s really sad."

Vita Iskandar stands where her home used to be before it was destroyed by the Tubbs Fire in October 2017. She doesn't know if she'll rebuild.
Vita Iskandar stands where her home used to be before it was destroyed by the Tubbs Fire in October, 2017. She doesn't know if she'll rebuild. (Sonja Hutson/KQED)

She and her neighbors who are sticking around are looking out for each other, just like they did the first night of the fire.

Iskandar put together a website and email lists to share insurance information, and helps run workshops throughout Santa Rosa.

"Helping other people became my coping strategy," Iskandar said.

That help has extended 3 1/2 hours north to the community room of the Redding Library.

Iskandar recently led a workshop there for survivors of the massive Carr Fire that broke out in late July.

"One of the things we’re trying to accomplish is to inspire the people who would do the same things in this community," Iskandar said.

Iskandar says sharing information and working together to contact insurance companies helps fire survivors better advocate for more money to rebuild their homes.

Jim Dowling was really excited by that idea.

"Wouldn’t it be neat though if we could find out who the other Farmers [Insurance] people are?" he asked a small group of fellow Carr Fire survivors.

Jim and Donna Dowling stand in front of the rubble that used to be the home they built from scratch 25 years ago outside Redding. It burned down in the Carr Fire in late July.
Jim and Donna Dowling stand in front of the rubble that used to be the home they built from scratch 25 years ago outside Redding. It burned down in the Carr Fire in late July. (Sonja Hutson/KQED)

Jim and his wife Donna sat in a small circle with those fellow survivors, and started brainstorming how they could get people with Farmers Insurance together to send a letter to the company.

"My fellow Farmers are up against the exact same issues," Jim Dowling said. "Sixty percent on the contents, and you gotta itemize if you want a farthing more than that."

That means the Dowlings can only get 60 percent of the value of their belongings — unless they take an inventory of everything in their home.

That’s especially hard to do when there’s nothing left of it.

Their home, which they built from scratch more than 25 years ago, was in a rural neighborhood outside Redding.

"It was a one-story, painted forest green," Jim Dowling said.

"Big 50-foot-long deck in the back," Donna Dowling added.

They had lush flower and vegetable gardens, overlooking several acres of undeveloped land.

Jim and Donna Dowling look at pictures of the lush gardens they maintained outside their home, before it was all destroyed in the Carr Fire.
Jim and Donna Dowling look at pictures of the lush gardens they maintained outside their home, before it was all destroyed in the Carr Fire. (Sonja Hutson/KQED)

"I’m done with the sad stage, I really am. I’m hopeful," Jim Dowling said. "Can you say that honey?"

"I would say," Donna Dowling said. "I mean the sadness, the stuff is in our hearts and photos that we can look at, the memories, and you can’t get it back and if you just wallow in that, it’s not healthy."

So, they’re moving on. Trying to settle an insurance claim that could take more than a year — and at Vita Iskandar’s suggestion, banding together with their neighbors to share information and advocate for themselves.

The Dowlings want to enjoy that 50-foot deck again, even if it's overlooking a charred landscape.

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