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Recovery from Tubbs Fire in greater Mark West region eyes more fire-safe future

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Corrie Leisen closes the hand-carved door they commissioned to feature the over 200- year-old live oak that was burned to the ground in the 2017 Tubbs Fire. The Leisens spent four years planning and building their new Wikiup home Oct. 27, 2022. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

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Fig and olive trees in Janet and Corrie Leisen’s orchard have started producing fruit, providing yields for the first time in five years after the Tubbs Fire roared through the hills of Napa County and the Mark West Springs north of Santa Rosa.

The Leisens, one of more than 5,000 Sonoma County families who lost their homes in the firestorm, also lost their thriving vegetable garden, two barns, a small rental house and more than 100 beloved trees. .

In the weeks and months that followed, legions of these survivors wrestled with the question of whether to rebuild, undertaking a daunting process requiring contractors, building permits, insurance negotiations and paperwork. endless.

For the Leisens, the decision to rebuild on their 8.5-acre Wikiup Bridge Way property was almost immediate, said Janet Leisen, 67.

“It’s my home,” she said.

Tennis Wick, director of Permit Sonoma, the county’s permitting and planning department, recounted the establishment of a recovery center dedicated to helping residents like the Leisens unravel the rebuilding process. On the first day it opened, smoke was still moving through the building as people lined up outside, physically and emotionally exhausted, Wick said.

“We would typically see 150 people a day,” Wick said. “That first day, we saw 425.”

In the greater Mark West Corridor, including Larkfield, Wikiup, as well as the outlying areas of Santa Rosa and Windsor extending to the Mayacamas Mountains, 874 homes have been rebuilt, 337 homes are in progress, 64 projects are pending construction, 38 are awaiting permits and 35 properties have withdrawn from the reconstruction process.

Michele Way Estates, a 1950s rural subdivision off Mark West Springs Road, was home to 63 developed properties in 2017. The fire destroyed them all, said Michele Way resident Barry Hirsch.

Of the 63 homes, 33 have been rebuilt, some by original owners and others by developers and new buyers, Hirsch said.

A retired building contractor, he built his home on Michele Way in the mid-1980s. It was there that he and his wife, Marlena Hirsch, raised their children.

Hirsch and his wife, both 73, knew almost immediately they wanted to rebuild. They completed their reconstruction in a year and were among the first to return to their home in 2018.

Hirsch knows his rebuilding experience wasn’t typical — it took a lot of people a lot longer — and credits his up-to-date homeowners insurance and experience as a building contractor.

“I would never have built my house so quickly if I didn’t have a network of people I worked with for 40 years,” Hirsch said.

In the weeks and months that followed, fire demand for contractors, engineers and building materials increased, causing delays.

“Over time it got complicated because the demand didn’t go away and then we had contractors and designers coming from outside the region,” Wick said. “Most with good intentions, some without.”

Wick said residents began teaming up to negotiate with builders as a group and saw success, especially when residents worked with local designers familiar with the county’s building process.

Homeowners higher up the canyon leading from the Mayacamas Division encountered other challenges, including hilly terrain and damage to infrastructure, including country roads and private bridges.

“It’s not flat ground like further down the valley,” Hirsch said. “It’s a hillside community.”

Rural residents also had to deal with damaged wells and septic tanks, Wick said.

Michele Way Estates uses a mutual water company to supply water to all 63 homes, and the fires burned down the pump station — a problem residents had to deal with themselves, Hirsch said.

“People in unincorporated areas like this have had to deal with that,” Hirsch said. “Where in the city, you didn’t have to deal with that stuff.”

Hirsch said he didn’t mean city residents had an easier time rebuilding, only that the challenges were different.

On Wikiup Bridge Way, any idea of ​​reconstruction was delayed by the loss of both the bridge that provided the only access to the neighborhood and a retaining wall that shored up the road, Leisen said.

Limited access has delayed debris removal in the area. When it finally started in March 2018, the trucks were forced up a steep hill and into an easement to connect to nearby Carriage Lane, Leisen said. Trouble continued when heavy trucks ripped up Wikiup Bridge Way, a single-lane road.

“They just destroyed our road,” Leisen said. “He went from a tarmac road to a gravel road.”

The Leisen’s road to reconstruction was slow. They lived in trailers on their property for a year and a half until their small rental house was completed. They lived there while the main house was rebuilt.

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