Rebuilding Sonoma County: Families seeking to return to Bennett Ridge

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Like most of the rest of Sonoma County, the Bennett Ridge neighborhood is beginning to recover.

Huge piles of watermelon-sized rocks are everywhere, excavated to make room for new foundations. Firewood is stacked in cords, even if the wood itself has been pre-charred. Signs from construction companies announce every home being rebuilt, with new framing easily visible through the still-spare vegetation along Bennett Ridge, Bardy and Rollo roads.

The October 2017 wildfires incinerated 92 homes on Bennett Ridge, destroying more than two-thirds of the neighborhood of 129 homes. To the east and south, the fires consumed 139 homes in Kenwood and 268 elsewhere in Sonoma Valley.

Of the 407 buildings destroyed in the valley during the wildfires, only three had been rebuilt by mid-February — one in Kenwood, one in Glen Ellen and one in the Bennett Ridge area. Another 114 are under construction, and permits have been issued for 60 more, according to Permit Sonoma.

Many of those who lost their homes in Bennett Ridge are staying. They appreciate the rugged, rural landscape and value their neighbors. They will rebuild, if they can afford to.

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Staying put on the ridgetop

The Parkinson family— Pete, his wife, Celia, and 10-year-old son Henry — fled their ridgetop home overlooking Trione-Annadel State Park in the early hours of Oct. 9, thinking at first they would go to Celia’s mother at Journey’s End Mobile Home Park for safety. But flames had destroyed much of the Santa Rosa mobile home park.

“There were never any evacuation orders issued that night for our neighborhood,” said Parkinson, the former director of the county’s planning department. “In fact they told some people to just go back to bed. But from my perspective, that is just emblematic of how overwhelming the whole situation was, because even the firefighting agencies did not in those early hours have a very good handle on the scope of the fires.”

For 11 years, until his retirement in 2013, Parkinson was director of the county’s Permit and Resource Management Department. Before that he was in a similar role in Santa Cruz County when the Loma Prieta earthquake struck in 1989. He knows something about natural disasters and rebuilding.

An underlying factor in both cases, said Parkinson, was disaster preparedness — which in retrospect sounds like an oxymoron. “You know, it wasn’t like we were totally unaware of the hazard,” he said of his time in county government. “The difference is that they saw it as separate issues. Like, you could have a fire in Fountaingrove or over in the Montecito area or in Oakmont. Instead, it happened everywhere, all at the same time.”

The Parkinsons are living in a rental in Bennett Valley. Adding up their insurance coverage — home, possessions, other structures — they have barely enough money to rebuild their home, with amenities to come later.

With his experience in planning, Parkinson knew to jump right away into permit applications, researching architects and contractors, laying the groundwork for his rebuilding project. The quick start paid off: As of mid-February, the framing is up, the roof is on, the windows installed. The family is getting incentives from Sonoma Clean Power to build 20 percent over code, using energy-saving insulation that will reduce heating and cooling costs over the long term.

The new house will include a great view of Hood Mountain across the valley to the east. On a clear day the 2,733-foot peak looks almost close enough to touch, its south-facing wall looming large and even more dramatic than when seen from Highway 12. That view alone was incentive to stay on Bennett Ridge.

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On the fence based on costs

Mike Perry would like to stay, too, but the longer the rebuilding process goes on, the more difficulties arise. His home on Rollo Road was lost, but his insurance was $400,000 short of what it would take to build a new house today.

“Housing costs have gone up a tremendous amount. The price of lumber has gone up — and construction cost is based on bids, and there’s not enough labor,” he said. “It was expensive before the fires, and after the fires it’s just gone up.”

Perry and his family have lived in the house for 10 years, and despite the challenges he is hoping to rebuild. “We’re going to try,” he said.

They filed their architectural plans with Permit Sonoma, but Perry, an attorney in the county’s Public Defender Office, said the building department was overworked and the plans were sent to an outside contractor for review. The contractor had a different set of rules for their plan check, resulting in further delays in the review process, he said.

Then their property was over-excavated by a subcontractor hired by the Army Corps of Engineers to clear debris, Perry said. The subcontractor dug too deep and removed too much soil — not an uncommon story among fire survivors seeking to rebuild. The soil was replaced, but it may or may not be stable enough for a new foundation, he said.

“Over-digging probably set us back six months,” he said. “You know, it’s a domino — when one thing goes wrong it pushes other things back.”

Even today, he doesn’t know for sure if they can afford to rebuild on the property until they get the final bid. “Will we give it a shot? I don’t know,” he said.

Perry admits it’s been harder to cope with the post-fire process than he expected. “I do pretty well with stressful things, but not this much.”

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Moving on, but not moving far

Others, including Helen Sedwick and her husband, Howard Klepper, struggled mightily on whether they would pursue a rebuild, especially since their insurance didn’t come close to covering the cost.

“Our insurance company did not require us to rebuild in order to recover the settlement,” said Sedwick, a 63-year-old attorney. “But the biggest factor was that Howard would be able to get back to work sooner.”

Klepper, who is 70, has been a custom guitar maker for 50 years. But he lost his shop, including a collection of rare woods that are hard to find, and 20 guitars in different stages of construction when the fires swept the ridge and down Bardy Road.

In the end, the couple decided to find a new home.

“You could spend a couple years rebuilding. We’re skipping that step,” she said.

They were able to buy a place in Glen Ellen, not far from their Bardy Road property. They’ll hold onto it and sell at some point, but for now they’re happy to have a place so close.

“We’re literally 2 miles from our favorite neighborhood,” Sedwick said. “It’s a wonderful neighborhood.”

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