Rebuilding Sonoma County: Families seeking to return to Bennett Ridge
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.
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.