Recovering, reimagining, rebuilding
As the year turned once again toward fire season, a line from a Joan Baez song kept repeating in my head: “Well I’ll be damned, here comes your ghost again.” When the mercury shot up into the nineties a couple weeks ago, I could feel my anxiety rise with the temperature. Tomorrow, on the anniversary of the fire, PG&E is planning to shut off power because of wind and low humidity. There’s no escaping the fact that we’re living in the aftermath of disaster – that specter will probably always be with us.
Balanced against those feelings of grief and foreboding is a growing sense of anticipation. After we broke ground in May and the foundation was poured in late June, stacks of wood were delivered and the framing crew got ready to start. It was exciting to watch the daily progress. Just as the walls were about to go up, we reluctantly had to leave on a long-planned trip. When we returned two weeks later, the walls were framed! Soon, we saw the roof trusses go up and the roofline drawn against the sky. Next came the roof deck and the interior framing – now we could walk around inside the skeleton from room to room. Seeing our home translated from an idea on paper into something tangible is a small miracle.
The first time we brought our little dog, Pepper, over after the walls were up, he ran around and barked excitedly. He seemed to understand something good was happening. The exterior walls got covered with plywood and then with a blue waterproof material similar to Tyvek. The windows arrived and were installed. The plumbing was roughed in. The ceiling and exterior walls were insulated. And just last week, the sheetrock was put up. We’re really liking the layout and are seeing how the long design process has paid off (thank you, Nanette and George, our architects, and Hank, our first contractor).
Nearly everyone who’s worked on the place has made a point of saying how sorry they are that we lost our home. These guys are in it for more than a paycheck; they’re putting their hearts into the work. When we told Mark, our contractor, that it would be okay to use plywood for a small closet cupboard, he responded, “I don’t put plywood doors in my houses. It’s not what I’d choose for my own house.” He’s a craftsman and wants us to have the best house he can provide. Same with the carpenters who signed their names in pencil on the studs and plywood, and the electricians who did the same with blue chalk. Our home feels like a gift from all of them.
The old house was hunkered down among bushes and trees. The new one stands tall in the middle of a swath of bare dirt. We’re coming to appreciate the change. The back porch, at six feet off the ground, is a great vantage point. We can stand there and watch the birds in our one surviving valley oak. Off in the distance are hills in the regional park which we never used to see.
Over the last six months, our neighborhood has been rising, too. The guy across the street has his place framed. I hadn’t seen his neighbor, Dave, “the UPS guy,” in quite a while. The night of the fire, Dave rescued an elderly woman up a long driveway nearby. By the time he returned, his own home was on fire. It was good to see him recently, standing in the hole where his rebuild is going to be. Sadly, some folks, including our immediate neighbors, have left. But there hasn’t been as much of a shift as I might have expected. There are still lots of familiar faces. Even the newcomers are mostly local, including some Kenwood friends who bought a burned out property behind us and are planning to build.
O’Donnell Lane, which is right behind us, is having their second annual firestorm memorial party. I didn’t attend the first one. A year ago it felt like we were still slogging through thick mud – so many details and bureaucratic uncertainties. The clean-up was done, but no one had yet broken ground. A year later it’s a completely different story. A few people are already moved back in. Others, like us, are far along with their rebuilds. And some lots are vacant – the owners moved on and sold, or are having difficulties getting permits or finding a contractor.
Right now we have the delicious task of choosing exterior colors for the house. We’re thinking green with yellow trim or yellow with green trim. “Golden Ticket” is our favorite yellow, which brings to mind Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Jill and I have been exclaiming to each other – “We’re going to have a new house!” At times it seems like we’ve won a bizarre sort of lottery. We haven’t quite found our green yet. Jill’s favorite is “My Sanctuary,” which is an attractive name, but the color is a little too blaring for my eyes. I joked that we’d risk attracting leprechauns. Jill liked the idea of our house being a giant leprechaun trap. No matter the color, it will be our sanctuary when we’re done.
I cringe a little as I write this, knowing that other peoples’ experiences have been quite different. We know folks who had terrifyingly close calls during the evacuation and much harder landings than we did. We’ve heard that people who own their homes tend to come out better financially after a disaster, while renters often end up worse off. Inequalities are accentuated. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. It doesn’t seem fair that a calamity which brought the community together should play out differently for each family and individual. At the same time, we’ve experienced how temporary this all is – we now know that our luck could flip at any time.
With the anniversary of the fire I find myself counting things: Two years gone by. One home almost rebuilt. Another day closer to the end of fire season. But when I try to count the gifts received, I quickly lose track. Do we deserve all that’s come to us? Sometimes I struggle with that question. We paid a steep price to get here. But so did everyone who lost their home and many who didn’t. Maybe deserved or undeserved misses the point. The outpouring of good will since the fire is a testament to the astonishing spirit and generosity of our community. That’s the real golden ticket we’ve been lucky to hold.