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Rebuilding Sonoma County: Sonoma Valley a patchwork of projects, barren lots

Glen Ellen is making progress in putting itself back together after October’s devastating Nuns wildfire swallowed up 183 homes in a matter of days. The tiny town saw the largest loss of structures in Sonoma Valley, representing 45 percent of the 407 homes destroyed.

On Dec. 15 the first rebuilding permit, for a 1,000-square-foot home on Dunbar Road, was issued by the county. Since then, crews from the Army Corps of Engineers to service clubs, have begun to remake the little hamlet where writers Hunter S. Thompson liked to drink, MFK Fisher entertained, and Jack London roamed his ranch.

As of last week, a total of 40 rebuilding permits are pending approval for properties from Warm Springs Road to Hill Road, although very few homeowners have broken ground. Glen Ellen represents 7 percent of the 555 permits started in the unincorporated areas of Sonoma County. By comparison, residents in Kenwood, which lost 140 houses, have filed for 31 permits while just five residents on the outskirts of Sonoma have sought permits.

The rising cost of raw materials paired with the limited availability of contractors have meant slow going for many homeowners. Some, like Barbara Naslund, who lost her house of 32 years on Bonnie Way, have decided not to rebuild. Others are still fighting insurance companies for a sufficient settlement.

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Rebuilding hopes and worries

Contractor Brent Svendsen was already at work fixing dry rot at the Sylvia Drive home of Todd and Megan O’Donnell when the Nuns fire blazed through. It left nothing but a concrete fountain and the remains of a fireplace. The O’Donnells, who’d lived at the home for 15 years, never questioned whether to rebuild. They got right to work.

“I knew there was going to be a flood of people trying to build at once,” said Todd O’Donnell.

He called Svendsen three days after the fire to make sure he had a contractor. Svendsen said he had no shortage of offers for work, but not everyone was ready to put the money down. The O’Donnells knew it would take big dollars to rebuild their Glen Ellen dream home, and went to Exchange Bank to secure a construction loan.

“They’ve been great. They’re bending a lot of rules for fire victims,” Todd O’Donnell said of the bank.

He estimates that insurance only covered about 60 percent of what they lost, which included a large garage and granny unit in addition to the house. Taking out loans was a leap of faith.

“We just hope we can get (the money) back from PG&E,” O’Donnell said. “Otherwise, we might have to build this house and sell it because we won’t be able to afford the mortgage.”

Cal Fire last month determined the Nuns fire was caused by PG&E electrical equipment. The O’Donnells said they plan to sue the utility, joining thousands of other survivors in the region seeking to recoup damages estimated at $10 billion.

Svendsen’s ties to subcontractors have sped progress on the O’Donnells’ home.

“The hardest part right now is finding architects and engineers,” he said.

O’Donnell tapped fellow volunteer firefighter George Psaledakis, also of Glen Ellen, who lent his architectural skills to the project. The couple planned to start over with a new design, but ultimately the blueprints ended up just like the three-bedroom bungalow they lost, albeit with higher ceilings. Due to tight funds, the O’Donnells decided not to replace the garage and granny unit.

The permits were pulled April 15, and by early June they had a foundation poured.

Right now, the O’Donnells have their sights set on Christmas, when they hope their home might be ready for their return to Glen Ellen.

“That would be a great Christmas gift,” Todd O’Donnell said.

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Little school that could

Dunbar Elementary opened in Sonoma Valley in 1857 with 21 students. Its small class sizes and rooted traditions have earned it acclaim as the “best kept secret” in local education.

One of its most popular rites is the Halloween Carnival, during which the entire community comes together, fully festooned. This year, the festival date fell just days after Sonoma Valley Unified School District reopened its campuses, but Dunbar never considered canceling the holiday.

“It’s a tradition and we were not going to break it,” said Celeste Winders, a mother of two Dunbar students.

The party was moved inside, because the school grounds, including the kindergarten playground, garden, chicken coop and famed Haver Stage, were all destroyed in the blaze. Everyone grabbed a costume. Republic of Thrift sent nine employees dressed up as the characters of “The Wizard of Oz,” complete with flying monkeys. It was important to keep a sense of normalcy.

“The kids needed it,” Winders said.

That first week back was focused on healing as the school rallied around the five Dunbar families who lost their homes. Counselors such as loss specialist Rebecca Bailey, whose Sylvia Drive home burned to the ground, were stationed in classrooms to help kids cope.

To rebuild the melted playground, PTO Vice President Chris Marino immediately launched a fundraising campaign, which garnered $11,296. Because of liability laws, the school had to replace the playground with insurance funds. The donor dollars went to outfit the space with toys, balls, sandboxes and playhouses.

The Rotary Club of Glen Ellen/Kenwood handed over $10,000, and a lot of sweat equity, to rebuild the garden and the outdoor stage just in time for May’s annual fifth-grade melodrama. Landmark Winery gave another $10,000, one of many Glen Ellen businesses to support the school.

“That’s how Dunbar is, that’s how Dunbar always has been. We take care of each other,” Winders said. She was a student there herself when an electrical fire burned her childhood home to the ground in 1982. She was home alone when the flames burst out of the wall, and the first person on scene was her principal, Ken Limon.

While the school’s garden will take time to grow, other repairs to Dunbar campus are complete. However, Magnani is worried about the longer-term impacts. A majority of Dunbar students live in rental housing around the valley, and she fears the rising costs in a tighter-than-ever housing market will force families out.

“The rate of every rental is going up,” she said. “I think we’re going to see a shift in population after those leases go up. I don’t think we’re near done seeing the impact.”

Emily Charrier is publisher of the Sonoma Index-Tribune and Petaluma Argus-Courier.

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