O’Donnell Rises: Glen Ellen’s fire ravaged lane – a year later

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Five bright yellow umbrellas are positioned around patio tables and a pristine pool on a half-acre lot alongside Sonoma Creek.

Where the house once was there’s now a hint of the future. A new foundation marks the spot where a home will soon be built, replacing the one last year’s firestorm erased.

A sign is posted on this property – O’Donnell Rises -- with the word “rises” set in a yellow ball, the sun rising on this ravaged lane.

It was here that the neighbors gathered on the evening of Oct. 9, one year after the Nuns fire burned 23 houses into nothing on this dead end of O’Donnell Lane in Glen Ellen, reached by a narrow bridge that crosses the creek.

“We needed to be together,” Mike Witkowski said, and so he emailed an invitation with a poignant photo of their street sign and the words, “You are invited to the O’Donnell Lane First Annual Firestorm Remembrance Block Party,” with instructions to gather at “Steve and Mike’s Place,” the spot with the yellow umbrellas, bring a beverage and appetizer and “Come share your stories, frustrations and successes.”

And so they did, feasting on a lavish potluck buffet of tamales, pizza, ribs, shrimp, meatballs and tomatoes with mozzarella, laid out on linen-covered tables and in true Wine Country fashion, many, many bottles of chard, zin, sauv blanc and rose. There were hay bales to sit on, fresh wood chips underfoot, tiny pumpkins dotting the tabletops and music playing on an Ecco.

Hugs and laughter and the occasional tear were shared as they updated each other on the status of building permits, the whereabouts of the those not there and the hope that by next year things might be almost back to a new normal.

In full view of the party was the uplifting sight of the stick framing of the Cameron home, the first on the block to begin to rise up, however slowly and delayed. Witkowski said their roof trusses, which would usually take six weeks to be delivered, took four months to arrive because of the high demand for building materials caused by the fires. The owners weren’t at the party, reportedly because they, like several others, were traveling this week, finding it too hard to be around on the anniversary of that terrifying night.

Steve Thomas and his husband Mike Grace had purchased their O’Donnell Lane home, where their neighbors now gathered, only seven months before the fire. They’d resurfaced the pool and renovated a small cottage on the property with plans to update the 1940s main home eventually. Now they will build one 2,700-square-foot home, and are focusing on the positive.

“When we found this home it was a dream come true and we still feel that way,” Thomas said. “The horror of the fire takes time to adjust to, and the displacement is hard, but in the end we will come out on the good side of the equation.” Their new home will hopefully be complete by next August.

Meanwhile they have a rental in Glen Ellen near the Witkowskis (they call their temporary block O’Donnell Heights) and a screened in tent at the O’Donnell Lane property out by the pool and umbrellas. They planted a huge flower and vegetable garden, a bright spot in the neighborhood, which includes 60 tomato plants and towering sunflowers, heads now drooping.

Mike and Jane Witkowski lived in their 1,540-square-foot, two-story home where they raised their two daughters for 43 years. Mike had recently retired from teaching for decades at nearby Dunbar Elementary and Jane had retired from a lifelong career as a recreational therapist at Sonoma Developmental Center. They had worked hard to fully own their home before retiring, and then it was gone.

They have been living in a rental house in Glen Ellen. Mike comes down to O’Donnell Lane every day and Jane joins him most of the time. They built a shade structure on their property, with a glass table that did not burn and some chairs. They tend the few plants that have started to come back, laid some brick paths and share rebuilding anecdotes with neighbors who also return to the block frequently. There is so much to do.

A year ago they were sifting through the ashes of their home, finding only an heirloom porcelain doll and some old salt and pepper shakers, all that is left from a lifetime. Next they started down the recovery trail that all those who lost their homes have learned so well.

The first step was having the land cleared of debris, a government-run project that did not happen on O’Donnell Lane until February, more than four months after the fire.

Next came soil tests to be sure all toxins were removed. Then geological tests to measure the bedrock, followed by structural engineering studies. The lots on O’Donnell also had to be surveyed to define where individual property lines were. “And there are fees for everything,” Witkowski said. They also had to have 19 burned trees removed, some of them oaks more than 100 years old.

They finally received their building permit on Sept. 20. Their new home will be slightly smaller and only one story with a long front porch, she said. Looking for a silver lining, Jane is happy that it will have a dedicated laundry room after many years of having to go outside to the garage to get to the washer and dryer. They will also have solar panels, which weren’t possible in the past because they had so many trees.

Their new home, if all stays on schedule, is set to be finished in January of 2020. Their insurance coverage only pays for their rental home for two years, so come next October they will be looking at a few months gap when they may have to stay with friends.

“I just want to go back to our old house,” Jane said. “I just want to be able to go home.” And she will. To their new home.

In Limbo

Their next door neighbor Marjorie Everidge had lived in her home since 1952, when her father bought it on a 1-acre site. She also owned three additional homes built on the property through the years and lived in by family and renters. There were 53 dead trees removed from the Everidge property, where she ran a daycare center out of her home for 44 years, “So I have gotten to know a lot of people.” Her friend Carole Jackson occupied one of her houses for 30 years.

Everidge appeared in a large, front page Index-Tribune photograph last year, standing in the ashes of her property and looking forlorn. She smiles easily now, but is still feeling the pain of the loss. “Losing everything, that’s been the hardest part,” she said.

She and her partner Archie Horton, who she met at a dance class in 1993, are grateful to still be living on O’Donnell Lane. Everidge’s grandson David was building a deck on a vacation rental cottage at the end of lane at the time of fire. It survived the blaze and he asked the owners to please let his grandmother stay there, and they converted it to a fulltime rental for Marge and Archie. They are so happy to still be on the lane, though the 420-square-foot space is a little bit cramped.

Everidge is having two manufactured homes built which will be delivered to her property site completed. “I’m thinking positive that they will be here by the Fourth of July.” She and Horton will live in one and her friend Jackson will have the second. Eventually she may build a custom home to replace the one that was originally built in 1917. But she is not quite sure. “I’m in limbo,” she said.

“I can still picture the old house. I want the new one to look mostly the same. But with a big deck,” she said.

Several of the original homes are still standing on O’Donnell Lane, and their owners have learned an appreciative sadness. At the remembrance party Tony and Sally Schapero expressed their support. “I feel my neighbor’s frustration. They are pretty strong people. Stronger than me,” Sally said. Tony recalled that it was the San Francisco Fire Department, with direction from local firefighter Nick Paganini, that saved their home and a few others before the flames became too intense.

“There were embers all over our property. I don’t know how it didn’t burn,” said Summer Danehy, who evacuated with her husband Jacob and Lily, then 3, and Ruby, 6 months. “I definitely feel closer to my neighbors now. The fires brought everyone together.”

The camaraderie and the hope were evident at the party this one year later, but knowing those whose homes are gone have months left to go before they can move back onto O’Donnell Lane gave the gathering a subdued air. The trees will still be gone. Nothing will ever be the same.

But still, as the sign says, “O’Donnell Rises.”

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