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.