In the fire-ravaged communities of Mendocino and Lake counties, unskilled, but enthusiastic construction teams have turned up lately to help burned-out residents rebuild.
Teams of volunteers from the AmeriCorps service organization are rolling up their sleeves to pour building foundations, hang sheetrock and dig drainage systems.
So far, the volunteers — working through disaster aid organization Hope City — have built 22 homes around Middletown in Lake County which burned in 2015, and two homes in Redwood Valley in Mendocino County which lost nine lives and dozens of homes in the firestorm of October 2017.
"We help people who could not rebuild without assistance,” said Valerie Cox of Hope City, "so they would be forever living in an RV or trying to couch surf or living with family members."
Under the program, homeowners are on the hook for building materials — but the labor is donated, considerably lowering the cost of a new home.
"If I hadn’t had had this help I probably wouldn’t have been able to build a house," said William Raby, whose Redwood Valley home burned in the fast-moving wildfire.
Like many fire victims, Raby and his family bounced around from hotels to relief camps to trailers. For the last year-and-a-half he and his family have lived in an RV on his burned out property.
"Four people and a big dog in a 35-foot travel trailer is cramped," Raby said as a team of a dozen AmeriCorps volunteers labored as many feet away preparing to pour his foundation. "It finally feels like something’s coming along, because it’s been a long haul."
Just a short drive down East Road, a resident who gave his name only as Paul was about a month away from getting the keys to his new home. The rust colored three-bedroom home included a deck and a view of the scraggly, blackened trees that stand as evidence of the fire that swept through his house.
His daughter Simone stepped into her empty bedroom — pointing-out where she planned to position her bed and dresser. Since the fire, the family temporarily relocated to an apartment in nearby Ukiah awaiting the chance to return to the wooded, rural community.
"I’m just so grateful we’re able to get back in the house again," Paul said.
For AmeriCorps volunteer Sam Martnick, the opportunity to travel to the West Coast fire zones from his home on the East Coast represented an adventure with purpose. Through the AmeriCorps program, teams of around a dozen people between the ages of 18 and 24 pursue various community relief assignments around the country during a ten-month span, taking up everything from hammers to educational books.
Martnick and his team recently put the final touches on Paul and Simone’s home and were now starting on Raby’s.
"It feels amazing to be able to help someone go through this," Martnick said. "I can only imagine what it’s like to lose everything, and so it feels really good to help to bring some of that back."
In nearby Lake County, another team of volunteers was digging trenches to provide drainage for the nearly completed home of Jocelyn French who lost everything in the 2015 Valley Fire. Like Raby, French bounced around from hotels to a FEMA trailer before ending up in an RV on her property. She watched as the volunteers poked at the soil with picks and shovels, the labor peppered with the laughter of a newly formed camaraderie.
"I’m thrilled to pieces," French said. "It’s a cute house, just the perfect size."
AmeriCorps volunteer Cody Alexander described the experience of working on the homes as emotionally rewarding.
"They are completely positive about the whole thing,” Alexander said, describing the fire victims his team has worked with. “That has just been a real impactful thing to see for all of us."
Volunteer Lucina Wolf-Brown echoed that sentiment.
"I feel very fortunate to be able to help somebody do this and get this experience."
Raby, a retired heavy equipment operator said the volunteer crews will walk away with unique life experiences as well as the skills to build a home.
"It’s cool for me and it’s cool for them," Raby said. "They’re learning."