Nearly four months since devastating fires ripped through their home in the Mendocino County town of Redwood Valley, Kim Monroe and his wife Mary watched a tiny sliver of normalcy return.
Across Tomki Road, a dozen volunteers in bright orange vests busily installed new redwood mailbox poles as part of a community effort to replace the burned mailboxes that line the fire-ravaged neighborhood.
"It’s kind of a step towards getting back to normal," Kim Monroe said. "There’s a lot of steps but we’re on our way."
The small step of installing mailboxes was Redwood Valley’s version of a barn-raising — with everything from the labor to the supplies donated by the community.
"It kind of helps reconnect us to our place," said Cathy Monroe, whose home burned in the fire. "Still feels like home. I’m definitely one of the people that’s going to be rebuilding."
Nine people died in the tiny community of Redwood Valley when fires scaled the hill from Potter Valley and laid waste to 300 homes. In the aftermath, Ukiah resident Danilla Sands opened a community center in a strip mall to supply victims with clothes, food, diapers and other basic items. One of the needs she heard over and over was for new mailboxes.
"Some people come in here and they’re, 'I have to get a post office box,'" Sands said, "or 'the mailman asking me to put up a mailbox — I’m just tying it to my fence now.'"
Sands reached out to local businesses for supplies, Mendocino Forest Products donated the wood, Friedman’s Home Improvements supplied the mailboxes, Home Depot pitched in the concrete and The Lions Club donated the screws.
Randy Dorn and a small group of local builders and contractors pitched in the labor, turning-out some 50 mailbox posts in a couple half-day building sessions.
"The loss in the valley is so huge," Dorn said, "that every little thing that anybody does to help anybody is a blessing."
During last weekend’s installation the volunteers teamed-up with local emergency responders who provided traffic control along the road. For many of the responders, it was their first time back in the neighborhoods since they tended to the grisly task of retrieving and searching for bodies in the fire’s aftermath.
Contractor Dick Otto helped guide his brigade of volunteer installers with gentle fatherly advice — before quickly moving to the next installation site. Volunteer Jess Beristianos set a gray mailbox onto the newly erected pole in front of what had once been a home, and raised the red flag.
"In a community that lost their entire home this is a nice foundation," Beristianos said, "a nice beginning."
Otto said in the scope of the rebuilding, a mailbox might seem like a small thing. But to people who had lost everything — even a small thing was something.
"It’s one of the first things that helps people get reestablished," Otto said, "just to have a mailbox and to start receiving their mail."
Next door to one of the new mailboxes, work crews with heavy machinery cleared away the blackened remains of a home and piled it into a truck. A tree cutter tethered to the top of a tall pine carefully cut away a branch which slowly coasted to earth at the end of a rope. They were all signs that Redwood Valley was making tiny steps towards returning.
"I think about, especially in the future, especially driving around the valley and wherever we see one of these t-posts,” Dorn said, “and we’ll know that’s where somebody lost their home.”