By Suzanne Pletcher
When Carol McHale got off the airporter bus at Sonoma County Airport on her way home to Coffey Park from a conference, it was the witching hour of Oct. 8, the night the Tubbs wildfire tore through Santa Rosa and leveled more than 4,500 homes.
Indeed, Carol remembered the night felt eerie, ominous. A wildfire flickered far away on a high ridge. A warm wind whipped dust and litter into the air, tore at the trees.
“When my partner Erin arrived to pick me up, I pointed out the fire. We hoped everyone was ok because it was a nasty night, and then we went home,” she said.
She left her suitcase by the front door, turned off the ringer on her phone so she could get a few extra hours of sleep before taking calls from colleagues at work, and got to bed around midnight.
“We awoke around 2:30 a.m. to the sound of the dog barking. We’re hearing the wind roaring, things are banging. Why is the dog barking so much? Then my phone started flashing,” Carol remembered.
It was her stepdaughter, and she sounded frantic as she told them a wildfire had jumped the freeway and was on the way to their house. But Carol reassured her that Coffey Park was in the middle of Santa Rosa, everything would be fine.
But they could smell smoke, so they got up. Carol went outside and saw the entire sky was red, embers raining down. Her first thought was that she needed to evacuate her mom, who lived in a care home four miles away. Just before they drove off, Erin ran back inside to close the windows against smoke damage and grabbed some money and their passports from a drawer on the way out. Within 15 minutes, they had evacuated.
“I left with basically a pair of jeans, a pair of shoes, my computers and my dog. I looked at my bags, still packed, but thought, ‘Eh, those clothes are dirty, I’m not taking them,’” said Carol.
On their way out of the neighborhood, they saw fire raining down, a neighbor’s house on fire. But firefighters were there, and the couple had confidence the pros would handle it. They never thought as they sped away that their own house would burn down. They found out later that it was destroyed around 3 a.m.
There was no wind at the nursing home. As morning broke, Carol’s mother greeted them wearing her cute bumblebee slippers, and they packed up a few things in case she needed to evacuate. They could hear the explosion of propane tanks back in Santa Rosa. Cars whizzed by down Piner Road. News of the fire was being broadcast from Coffey Park.
Around noon Carol and Erin drove back to retrieve toiletries, underwear, and other things they might need from home. They walked the dogs a mile into their neighborhood and, at first, the houses were fine. They looked over a wall and thought their house might still be there. But then they saw it was gone.
The scene was like a war zone, Carol remembered. The gas was still on, and flames were shooting out of gas pipes. Her car was smoldering. They saw the ripe persimmons from their tree on the ground, balls of black char encircling a black trunk.
“I think we were in shock,” she said.
In the midst of the enormous loss and disorientation, three things saved the couple.
First, the same day their home burned, Carol turned to Erin and said, “Ok, Erin, what are we going to do, are we rebuilding?” And Erin replied, “Yes.” So they had a focus.
Second, they decided to stay positive no matter what, to take the “high road.” They made every decision with the intention of lightening their load, and if they couldn’t lighten their load then they would lighten their hearts. That bound them together through the rebuilding process.
The community came together like I never could have imagined. You could feel the love. You could feel it everywhere and it was unmistakable and it was genuine. I’m getting weepy just saying it.
There was no time off of work. The health center where Carol is an information technology executive had lost its biggest campus, so employees were scrambling to serve patients, some of whom had lost their homes. But her co-workers brought her clothes, food, whatever she needed. The administrator at her mother’s care home cleared out a room where they stayed with their dogs for the first two nights, and then they stayed at the home of a co-worker who had taken her asthmatic daughter out of town to find cleaner air.
They found a rental home and, with the benefit of Carol’s professional project management experience, began the work of rebuilding.
She remembers the next two years as a gap where life was going on for everyone else but there was no bandwidth for her to do more than cope and rebuild her life. Every day there were a hundred inconveniences, and that was just something they had to endure, Carol said.
It was during that time that they learned about Sonoma Clean Power’s Advanced Energy Rebuild (AER) program and applied. AER, an effort developed in partnership with PG&E and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, offered up to $17,500 for homeowners rebuilding more efficiently and resiliently. Their first contractor swindled 52 families and is in court. Their second contractor, cherished father-son duo of Fitzgerald Construction, referred them to a Home Energy Rating System (HERS) rater and another energy professional who helped meet the stringent energy efficiency requirements of the AER program qualifications.
They told their contractor they didn’t want natural gas, so the new house is all-electric and fire-resistant. Solar panels power the house, an accessory dwelling unit (ADU) in the backyard, and an electric car charger. Sonoma Clean Power provided an additional $5,000 toward a back-up battery system, which was recently installed. Carol said the monthly energy bill with solar generation credits averages out close to nothing.
“We have always been conservation-minded. Because of our participation in this program and also the fine quality and craftsmanship of our contractor, our house is sealed tight,” said Carol. “We can hear our neighbor’s air conditioner running all the time, and ours hardly ever needs to run.”
Erin, after having an electric stove in the old house, coveted the idea of getting a gas stove in the new one. Carol said, “I really wanted our new house to be all-electric, so we ended up getting an amazing induction stove, and Erin picked it out. It was a good compromise and she loves it.”
Because of climate change and the fact that they live in a conservation-minded state, county, and city, Carol said that they knew the AER program was the right thing to do. The extra cost to meet the program requirements was mostly offset by the rebate. The only thing that Carol said was expensive was the backup battery for the solar system, but for them it was worthwhile.
Carol’s advice for others coping with similar loss?
“Someone told me, ‘Save all of your receipts.’ So I got a book to store them and it became huge. Dealing with the insurance was hard, but we were lucky because we had a good policy and not everybody did,” she said.
Also, she and Erin banded together with people who wanted to help one another, and they sought resources that could support them.
“It was quite a run,” said Carol. “We learned a lot about ourselves and about people and about the world.”
It’s been five years since the Tubbs fire, and a marker commemorates the event at the entrance to Coffey Park. It’s near Carol’s new home, a resilient, highly-efficient house built to address climate change and the fierce wildfires caused by it.
It is just a house, and it is up to us to make it a home as far as the love that we bring to it every day. It is also a small part of a huge community that we have a responsibility to bring our best to because we want the best from our community. By treating the earth right and the air right and our water right and other people right, we have a chance.