Finding the right road home – the big decision
Two years later, some residents rebuilding, others moving on
As we approach the second anniversary of the fires that so transformed our towns, landscapes and lives, the Kenwood Press reached out to a variety of people to give us a glimpse into their decision-making processes about whether to rebuild or move on. Here are their stories.
Gary and Rebecca Rosenberg
Gary and Rebecca Rosenberg left Kenwood on the afternoon of Oct. 8, headed for the airport and a flight to Denver. It wasn’t until their neighbor Lori Fantozzi called them in the middle of the night that they found out their home of 29 years had burned to the ground. “It was unimaginable that six to seven hours after we left, the house was gone,” said Gary. After a brief trip back to Kenwood to see the devastation, they moved down to San Diego to be near their son and try to make sense of what had happened and what they should do about it.
Gary knew that if they were going to rebuild, they should act quickly to line up an architect and builder. He and Rebecca spent three days thinking and talking through all the pros and cons. Having just sold their business, Sonoma Lavender, and having been adequately insured (they’d had the same insurance agent for 38 years, who frequently touched base with them to increase their coverage) they knew they could rebuild from a financial standpoint. The question was whether they could do it from an emotional standpoint.
The Rosenbergs bought their house next to Chateau St. Jean Winery in 1988 as a vacation home, and in 1998 moved to Kenwood full time, sending their kids Marissa and Mark to Kenwood School, Rincon Valley Middle School, and Maria Carrillo High School, and putting down deep roots in the community. On the other hand, after the fire, they had an opportunity to do something totally different, like go live in Italy or Paris.
Community won out. Neither Gary nor Rebecca wanted to leave friends they’d known for almost 30 years only to move somewhere else and try to recreate something they already had. Rebecca explained, “Kenwood is such a strong, tight-knit community, it just grabs your heart.” She added, “It was the house we raised our family in. We didn’t want to let that go. Everything that was sweet in life was here.”
Once the decision to rebuild was made, they moved into a rental in Sonoma, and Gary went into action, making the thousand and one decisions it takes to build what would be their dream home, complete with a “viewing perch” accessed from outside and taking advantage of the sweeping views of the valley and a heritage oak that survived the fire unscathed.
The rebuild hasn’t been without problems, though, including a decision by FEMA to reclassify their seasonal creek as a Class A Flood Zone. This required them to raise the foundation three feet, and to pier down 20 feet, to keep the house from being swept away in a flood. “If we’d known that in advance, we wouldn’t have rebuilt,” Gary said.
But now the end is in sight. Finishing touches are going in, landscape is being planted where there were once several acres of lavender, and the Rosenbergs hope to move in on or before Nov. 1, in time to host Thanksgiving.
– Ann Peters
Bob and Tom Gianinni
“We left with the clothes we had on, and I grabbed a painting of the barn at my grandfather’s house,” Tom Gianinni recalled of the night of Oct. 8, 2017. Tom, 63, had been living on Treehaven Court in Kenwood with his now 90-year-old dad, Bob Gianinni since the 2012 loss of Bob’s wife and Tom’s mother, Jean.
“We hoped it would be there when we got back,” Bob added, over a sunny lunch on the patio at Palooza.
While Bob wanted to grab more stuff, Tom wanted to get out. They each got in a car and headed to the Kenwood Fire Station to work out where to go, finally deciding to strike out for the youngest sibling’s home in Napa, where they stayed for a few days. The next stop was eight days with a friend in Sebastopol, and then on to Petaluma for a month in a friend’s vacant house. When a rental opened up near Oakmont, they grabbed it.
“We talked about it and decided we needed a place of our own,” Bob said. “I felt lost. I needed companionship, smiling faces and friends. I was hoping we could rebuild.” That hope did not work out. They bought a home in Oakmont and moved in on Nov. 15, 2018. Their reasons for not rebuilding weren’t too complicated.
“I heard stories about rebuilding,” Bob said. “At one point, I wanted to rebuild, had been paid by the insurance company, and had talked to contractor friends and an architect. Cost overruns were sizable for people we talked to. We could rebuild, but there just wasn’t enough money to do everything.”
They could rebuild the house, but could only replace either the swimming pool or the driveway that was heavily damaged during debris removal.
“And there was other stuff to think of,” Tom added. “Do we really want to go through the time-consuming process of rebuilding? Dad had just turned 88. It was a matter of time and money.”
Living in the rental “didn’t feel right,” Bob said. “Except for right after getting married, I have always had a place of my own.” The Gianinnis contacted a realtor friend who found their current home on Oak Leaf Drive, near the 14th hole at Oakmont’s West Golf Course.
All four of Bob and Jean’s kids are supportive of Bob’s decision. “They were and are all there for me, either way,” Bob said, “though if I had a ton of money, I probably would have rebuilt.” He misses the congeniality of the old place, with its swimming pool, bocce ball court, BBQ court and million-dollar views of Hood Mountain.
Bob always said, “I don’t have to die to go to heaven; I live there.”
“I never thought when I left that I wouldn’t be back,” he said. “I’m happy for the town of Kenwood,” thinking about what wasn’t burned. “The village did not go. I’m happy for those people.”
– Jay Gamel
Eric Norrbom, 82, has outlived two of three wives and seen his share of disasters before the 2017 October wildfire left him standing in the middle of Treehaven Court at 3 a.m. with nothing but the clothes on his back and no phone reception. He spent a few hours with a neighbor who helped him get in touch with his daughter Colleen and son-in-law Anthony (Tony) Ross. After a roundabout, nightmare trip, he arrived at Colleen and Tony’s home in Healdsburg, where he is still living.
Today, a beautiful new home is rising from the ashes of the previous 1970s-era home. It’s an architect-designed structure with huge glass windows framing the magnificent view of Sugarloaf to the east and Sonoma Mountain to the west. Several happy confluences led to Eric’s decision to rebuild: Tony and Colleen are construction professionals associated with Marin-based architect Eric Rogers and construction broker Ian Neilson, who have all worked together to bring the new home into being.
Eric, who worked for 40 years at the Sonoma Developmental Center as a registered nurse, has nothing but praise for the county, too, having received more help than even asked for, often at no charge, when going through the time-consuming process of replacing all his lost paperwork, paperwork necessary to move forward and rebuild – everything from death certificates, to mortgages, surveys, insurance, and a hundred other details that need to fall into place to move forward when rebuilding a home without a single sheet of documentation on hand.
Permits aren’t free, but Norrbom says the county has been good about not overcharging or requiring tedious and expensive details. Five trips back and forth with the architect to fix issues that cropped up could have been handled more efficiently, he said, but for the most part, it has been less of a hassle than expected. “It could have been a lot worse.”
No project this size is without complications, and Norrbom had to deal with family finances, sorting out neighbor questions that popped up, and day-to-day problems that are being resolved.
At this point, it looks like the house may be ready for occupation by early next year, but “it’s a moving target.” When that day comes, Eric will move back to his Treehaven home with Colleen and Tony, a very positive outcome for the 82-year-old long-time resident.
– Jay Gamel
Holly and Red Milner
Holly and John (Red) Milner had lived in their Bonnie Way home for 17 years, and were celebrating having completed years of improvements to the house and property.
Then they got a phone call at 11:45 p.m. on Oct. 8 from a neighbor about a fire, telling them they should check on Red’s mother, who lived just blocks away.
They picked up Marty Milner at her house of 45 years and, along with others, waited in the Jack London Saloon for the all clear call to return to their Glen Ellen home.
That call never came.
Instead, Glen Ellen was evacuated as fire ripped through their neighborhood, taking the Milner’s home with it. Red’s mother’s home miraculously survived as adjacent properties burned, but there was extensive smoke and ash damage, some of the worst the post-fire cleaning company had ever seen.
All that was left of the Holly and Red’s home was an outdoor stone pizza oven.
Red is an insurance agent for Farmer’s Insurance, and Holly works at 3 Badge Beverage Corporation in Sonoma. Holly’s employer, the Sebastiani family, gave the two a home for three months before they moved back to Glen Ellen next to Marty’s property.
“We just didn’t know what to do,” said Holly after the shock of losing all their belongings started to wear off.
But soon they decided to rebuild. The two are Sonoma Valley natives, and their son, Kyle, is a graduate of Dunbar School and Sonoma Valley High School.
“I love this property,” said Holly.
“You miss it,” said Red. “Our house was the place friends and neighbors would socialize, and we lost that.”
Now Holly and Red are tantalizingly close to finishing their house. And though they found a contractor soon after the fire, it’s taken longer than they anticipated, with Red pitching in to do much of the work himself, 100 percent hands-on while keeping up his own business.
The day of this interview, there was a cause for celebration because their water system started working for the first time.
“All right!” said Holly as Red ran around testing all the faucets.
Living nearby has helped with the stress of rebuilding, though they are anxious to get everything done.
“We come back here every night, have a drink, and hope we can get in soon,” said Red.
Red and Holly have been fortunate with their insurance company, which has paid for everything they asked for. Also, their insurer did not require an itemized list of things that were lost, an arduous task that many fire victims have had to endure.
“We’ve been lucky,” said Holly.
Throughout the post-fire years, the Milners have maintained a positive attitude, and kept their sense of humor. Red and a friend made T-shirts with “It’s Always Something” on the front and a flame on the back.
Though it looks like the Milners will get their temporary occupancy permit soon, Red, reflecting on the many challenges of rebuilding from scratch, said, “I would not do this again.”
– Alec Peters
In 1996 Ed Power and Linda Liscom bought their house in Kenwood, perched high on a knoll above Adobe Canyon, overlooking the valley. Both pilots, Ed and Linda loved living up in the clouds, watching the turkey vultures and hawks ride the thermals below. Ed tended the land, weed whacking, pruning trees and chopping wood on their 15 vertical acres, and even planting a small orchard of orange and lemon trees. Ed and Linda had been married 40 years when he died of a stroke, at the age of 94, in March of 2017.
On the night of Oct. 8, Linda was just home from a trip and had turned off her phone and gone to bed early, only to awaken at around 11:45 p.m. to a sky that was pulsating with heat and backlit with orange and red.
She said that she knew she was in deep trouble, but at the same time felt completely grounded. She told herself, “Don’t grab. Just go.” She got dressed, opened a drawer, tucked a collection of exotic earrings that Ed had given her into her pocket, and walked through the house, looking at all the photos, pictures and artwork she and Ed had accumulated over the years, but not taking any of it with her. Linda knew that she might have to hike out depending on where the fire was, but fortunately she was able to drive down their steep, half-mile driveway, meeting up with a neighbor at the bottom of the hill. Driving through fire on Adobe Canyon Road, Linda looked back and saw flames racing up the hill toward her home.
Surviving two traumas so close together, Linda decided to give herself two years before making any decisions about whether to rebuild or sell the property. She moved into a furnished house in Sonoma and worked through all the steps of getting her homesite cleared, taking down hazard trees, and making the steep hillside safe from erosion with wattles, silt fences, and hydro seeding native California wildflowers and grasses.
“The decision [to not rebuild] came very quietly,” said Linda, now 82. From the beginning, the rugged mountain site and their home, “The Eagle’s Nest,” became a sacred retreat for her and Ed. She is preparing the property for the spring market, doing post-fire fuel reduction, aesthetic cleanup and pruning.
Linda credits her current well-being to what she calls her “scaffolding of self-care,” which was in place before the fire and continues today. That includes being in a Master’s Swim program, practicing Qi Gong and meditation, spending lots of time in nature, and volunteering as “trail patrol” at Sugarloaf. She highly recommends Sugarloaf’s “Forest Bathing” guided walks for fire survivors.
Linda relishes her independent life in her cozy Sonoma cottage, her new community, and is now ready for the next step, whatever it is. She leans on the wish Ed gave her right before he died, “I want to set you free.”
– Ann Peters
Jimmy and Colleen Galvin
Jimmy and Colleen Galvin’s 12-acre property is about as hard to get to as any property off of Trinity Road. Deeply forested before the fire, it is isolated and extremely difficult, if not impossible, for firefighters to get to in a big blaze.
The fire two years ago was especially unforgiving to properties in the Trinity/Cavedale area, burning close to 100 percent of the land and destroying 48 homes, including the Galvin’s.
Jimmy and Colleen bought their property in 1996, and built their house in the woods in 2002. They were actually away the night of the fire, in South Carolina for a wedding. A neighbor told them their home was gone – just a bunch of rubble with the tallest part left standing only three feet high, and 500 trees burned and destroyed.
Also gone was a truck, a trailer, and a classic 1952 Chevy Fleetline Deluxe. Another vintage vehicle, a Chevy flatbed truck, was 80 percent burned. But Jimmy got it up and running again, preserving its burned look. On the back of the cab is written “Sonoma Co. Strong, Survivor Oct. 2017,” and the vehicle is a favorite in local parades.
“It’s a different view now,” said Jimmy as he looked over a broad canyon from the place where he and Colleen are rebuilding the exact same home they lost. For the first time, he can even see Jack London State Park all the way across the valley.
The Galvins knew right away they wanted to rebuild. They have moved into a rented bungalow in the Springs area as the rebuild continues.
They didn’t have any problems with their insurance carrier. Some glitches in the engineering process caused a fair amount of delay, but contractors finally started work in February.
“Once they started, it started going up pretty fast,” said Jimmy.
A few things will be different this time around. Now that there aren’t so many trees towering over the site, they are putting solar panels on the roof, and scattered around the perimeter of the roof will be six sprinklers that can shoot out 30-50 feet, and can be turned on remotely.
The emotional aftermath of the fire, though, did take a serious, almost fatal toll.
Just a little over a year ago Colleen suffered cardiac arrest, and basically died and was revived, and then frozen for 24 hours, a practice called therapeutic hypothermia. She recovered, and now has a pacemaker and defibrillator.
Both Colleen and Jimmy, as well as her doctor, believe the anxiety and stress related to the fire was a major factor in her cardiac arrest.
Galvin is “95 percent” retired from his Santa Rosa business, Galvin Precision Machining, which will continue to be operated by current employees. Colleen is a bookkeeper.
The Galvins are one of many parties who have sued PG&E. In their case, they are going after PG&E to pay for the loss of numerous dead fir trees near their home, estimated at about a half a million dollars. Later, Jimmy said, he plans to plant some redwoods.
“I’d do it all again. It’s a nice place to be,” said Jimmy of the decision to come back. “We choose to be out here. We know the risks. Now we know all the realities.”
– Alec Peters
Bernie and Kat Krause
Bernie Krause is a world-famous soundscape ecologist who has recorded wildlife and pioneered the science of acoustically analyzing ecologies for half a century. He and his wife Kat lost their beloved cats and unique rammed-earth home on Henno Road in Glen Ellen. They are now renovating a modest home in Sonoma.
Bernie and Kat left Wild Sanctuary, their home of 25 years, for the last time on the night of the fire.
“I lost all my detailed field journals going back half a century. Slides and photos of work in the field. Reference books. Nearly 70 years of correspondence. The guitar I played at Carnegie Hall as a member of The Weavers, replacing Pete Seeger. Fine art. Clothes. Furniture. Except for us, not one single item that we had amassed over the arc of our lives survived,” said Bernie.
“As we raced toward the car, a fire tornado seethed with a voice of rage, a sound I’d never heard before and hope never to hear again; the combined roar of wind and blistering heat signified by a ferocious, expirational crackling surge while the propane tanks of neighbors exploded all around us,” Bernie recalled. He said that the fire was “a humbling reminder of feral power and the absolute certainty that natural forces will always triumph in the end.”
As a practical matter, Bernie and Kat do not consider the material impact of their loss to be terribly great. “But it was emotionally traumatic – and it still is,” he said. “Even though we know everything is gone, we’re still faced with a sense of cognitive dissonance when our minds default to questions like ‘Where are the familiar objects we turn to as reminders of who we are in order to help us recover, mementoes of family still here or gone, where we’ve been, of those whose paths we’ve crossed?’”
He wonders how they can ever again allow themselves to feel as connected to another place when the habitat they had so lovingly tended was taken that effortlessly.
“We were greeted nearly every day with the numinous voices that arose from various blends of 32 species of birds, a family of foxes, one of bobcats, several coyotes, reptiles, amphibians, lots of insects, and even a mountain lion that occasionally visited us, all making their sonic presence known from time to time,” Krause remembers. “What made our home sacred was a serene consonance of the seasonal cycles, moments heightened by the captivating biophonies that arose from our tiny oak woodland.”
“Coming home from long field trips abroad, the site always welcomed us with a feeling that we had returned to hallowed territory. With all the stuff gone, now, the gentle tranquil soundscape remains the feature we miss the most.”
The land remains today, a lovely, isolated, rural spot with very little light pollution from the more densely populated areas to the south. On cloudless nights the Milky Way is almost always visible. But where they once felt safe in their home, “Now, something is missing. Wild Sanctuary is eerily quiet. With the loss of that voice our sense of well-being has palpably suffered as we have moved tentatively and with little choice into an unfamiliar and uncertain diaspora.”
– Bernie Krause and Jay Gamel