Wearing an orange poncho, gloves and a mask, Teresa Philbin, 58, stooped over with a bent frying pan to sift through the ash of what was once her home in Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park neighborhood on Wednesday.
“So much is gone,” she said, occasionally finding something recognizable in the burned ground, like her father’s solid brass scissors, as a light rain began to fall. “I look at it, honor it, and throw it away.”
Philbin and her family are among the thousands who are struggling to get on with their lives after losing their home in the Wine Country wildfires. She and her husband, Charles, have moved into a friend’s guest house in Sebastopol while their three sons, ages 18, 20 and 22, are staying with friends in Santa Rosa — a separation that has only added to their anxiety.
But one month after the most devastating wildfire event in California history, the family has learned that they have been approved for an apartment, and they’ll likely be back together this weekend. They’re just waiting for the landlord to finish painting the place.
“It’s huge,” Philbin said. “It’s all we’ve thought about for weeks. It’s been a giant, giant hill to climb.”
While the charred remnants of subdivisions and shopping centers still blight the hills and valleys of the North Bay — and won’t be cleared away for months — residents have slowly begun to find stability. Or at least as best they can a bare month after the Oct. 8 disaster.
More than 10,000 people in Sonoma and Napa counties alone were displaced by the fires. Hundreds more lost homes in Mendocino County. Between crashing with friends, staying at motels and Airbnbs, sleeping at emergency shelters, finding new places to live at in-law units or other rentals and even leaving the area, the number of people in need of housing isn’t known.
But with the help of state and federal aid workers, local officials say they’ve helped close the housing gap, even as the shortfall is exacerbated by the region’s already-tight real estate market.
“There are still people we need to help,” said Santa Rosa City Councilman Chris Rogers, who was fighting for more housing even before the fire. “But we’re wrapping up getting people stabilized. It’s really been a patchwork of pulling together resources to get us through this.”
Sonoma County officials estimate that before the fire, the county had a 2 percent rental vacancy rate. Now they say it is essentially zero.
This week, the last of nearly three dozen emergency shelters closed after aid groups coordinated to find housing for about 50 people who remained there over the weekend.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency is paying for individuals and families to stay at hotels — about 260 households to date — while preparing to bring in as many as 80 mobile home units to the Sonoma County Fairgrounds once the need is identified. Several converted shipping-container trailers used at the annual Burning Man festival in Nevada are also being proposed for use.
“We know there’s a lot of folks out there and they may be living with relatives now, but after a while, relatives may get a little ornery,” said FEMA spokesman William Lindsey. FEMA is expecting the number of people seeking aid to rise as some temporary accommodations dry up in the coming weeks.
Santa Rosa’s Astro Motel is one of the spots where many have found temporary sanctuary with FEMA’s help.
Hotel manager Steven Davila, 38, said he hadn’t been looking to make his newly renovated quarters an extended-stay residential complex, but the call beckoned.
“It’s been a whirlwind,” he said. “Everyone is just trying to get back to regular lives.”
Diane Hamilton, who lost her home at Journeys End Mobile Home Park, is staying at the Astro with her therapy dog Sophie, a white standard poodle, while she looks for a more permanent place.
She’s been on the waiting list at a low-income senior facility in Windsor for four years, but has now been bumped to the top of the list because she’s a fire victim.
“At 72 years old, I didn’t think I’d have to be starting over,” she said.
Things haven’t been easy for Tony McNeil either.
The 52-year-old, who lost his rented home near Calistoga Road and Highway 12, thought he’d scored a place to live at the end of October. But it fell through when the landlord found out last-minute that he needed to rent the house to relatives — who’d also been displaced by the fires.
McNeil and his girlfriend moved to the Red Cross shelter at the fairgrounds until that site closed. With no new home in sight, he wound up on a friend’s couch with his Jack Russell terrier, Quincy, and she is crashing with relatives.
“It’s too bad the shelter had to close, but it’ll be fine,” McNeil said. “The housing thing is just really tough right now. I’d really rather be in Santa Rosa, but I’m looking all over the county for anything we can rent. Everybody is in the same boat.”
Willie Tamayo fared pretty well, all things considered.
While it wasn’t what the founder and vice president of Santa Rosa’s La Tortilla Factory expected a month ago when he was living in the city’s upscale Fountaingrove neighborhood, the recently arrived rental furniture at his new two-bedroom apartment made things feel a little more homey.
Tamayo, 65, and his wife, Darlene, were lucky to secure a month-to-month lease at a 20-unit housing complex that opened near the junior college just before they lost their home in the fire.
“We left with literally nothing,” Tamayo said. “We realize we’ve landed in a safe place.”
As it is for many, the next step is rebuilding.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency recently began clearing the debris of homes and businesses across the 250 square miles of Napa and Sonoma counties that burned. The agency expects to have a clean slate for construction next spring, but that’s only an estimate. The noxious brew of household chemicals, construction materials and everything else that comes with the typical building must be carefully removed to avoid spreading it around, and that will be meticulous, tedious work.
The fire-ravaged counties, as well as the city of Santa Rosa, have already passed a raft of new ordinances streamlining the rebuilding process, such as cutting fees for displaced residents and moving application decisions from boards that meet sporadically to full-time office staff.
As she searched chunk by chunk through the rubble of her Coffey Park home Wednesday morning, Philbin said she is hoping to rebuild as soon as possible. But the apartment that her family is moving into this week, she said, is a perfect temporary measure.
Just then she pulled up a hunk of melted glass and tossed it back into the ash with other tokens of her past.
“It’s a little Zen,” she said. “You see something. You acknowledge it. You say goodbye.”
Evan Sernoffsky, Kevin Fagan and Kurtis Alexander are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org ___
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