In 2017, the Tubbs Fire razed several thousand homes in Santa Rosa. One of the neighborhoods hardest hit was Coffey Park. Now, waves of families are returning home.
Joan Mortenson will be able to move back to her house in May. Right now, her entire street is a construction zone, the houses at various stages in the process. Her brand new kitchen windows look out onto a charred redwood tree and the houses the next block over. On that street, most of the houses were spared.
Mortenson says her house almost made it through the fire but that’s as much as she wants to say about that night. The rest is too painful. She bought it after she got divorced, and it was the first she ever owned.
"It really meant a lot to me in terms of my independence, and I loved this house," she said.
Mortenson always knew she would rebuild. There was just the question of how. At first, she thought she wanted an exact copy of the house she lost. In the end, she decided to change a few things. There are more windows now, an added laundry room, and it’s a cheery yellow instead of gray.
Jim and Joy Neal live less than a mile from Mortenson. They moved back into their new home on Feb. 13. The move-in date was a Valentine's day present for Joy. They were offered a good amount of money for the property and Jim says he was tempted to sell at first.
"I just don’t like the idea that the fire might have burned me out. ... I want to say I came back and I came back better than I was," Jim Neal said. "That’s kind of a matter of personal pride in not giving up."
State data shows over 2,000 people left Sonoma County between 2017 and 2018, largely due to the wildfires. The county lost more people that year than any other county in the state. The Neals' neighbors moved to Arizona not long after the fires, and their lot is overgrown with weeds. But Neal says he and his wife are now much closer with the neighbors who did decide to rebuild.
"We lost everything in 30 minutes. That’s a tremendously emotional experience," Jim Neal said. "We’d come here and just break down and cry and we all did that.”
Of the 3,000 homes in Santa Rosa destroyed in the Tubbs Fire, the city says about 1,000 are currently under construction and around 250 have been finished.