Stephen Ellison

Mendocino County Fire Victims Slowly Return 6 Months After Blaze

Melissa Randall did the only thing you could do while watching a new house getting hauled up the driveway: She took out her phone and recorded video.

Her steady hand recorded as the large truck hauled her new 1,500-square-foot pre-fab home up the narrow dirt driveway to the property where Randall’s family had lived for generations — and where her old house burned down in the October firestorm that ransacked the Mendocino County town of Redwood Valley.

The home’s arrival meant six months after fire raged through the area — killing eight people and destroying more than 500 structures — she would soon have a place to call home again.

Joe Rosato Jr.
Melissa Randall inspects the inside of her newly-delivered modular home. Her home and all her possessions burned in the October fires that swept through Redwood Valley killing eight people and destroying more than 500 structures. (April 9, 2018)

“Whole new start,” Randall said two days later, admiring her new home which seemed to be floating in air on temporary supports and flanked by pastoral views.

Randall was on the leading edge of homeowners rebuilding in Redwood Valley, where spring grasses have covered most of the fire’s ashen remains except for the occasional thickets of blackened trees, which offered testimony of the disaster.

All down West Road and the hard hit Tomki Road stood hints of new homes being built, foundations getting poured, life trickling back to this rural enclave.

“I can’t wait to fill it up with some furniture,” Randall said, touring her home’s interior, “and have my little front porch with my lawn and a walkway — and come home every day.”

The fire on Oct. 28 was the second hellish thing Randall survived that week; she was present for the mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Festival concert in Las Vegas just a week before. She recounted sprinting past fallen bodies, bullets whizzing by her head and taking refuge in a hotel basement. A week later, her home burned to the ground.

“Glad 2017’s over, and this is a whole new year for me,” Randall said in the Ukiah Marriott Hotel, where she’s lived the last four months. “It can only get better from here.”

Yet it seemed not everyone was as anxious to return to Redwood Valley. All along the burned areas “For Sale” signs sat in front of vacant properties as if their owners had hoisted surrender flags.

“It’s cheaper to go buy something pre-existing than to build a brand new house,” said real estate agent Tammie Barajas, who added she’s heard of more and more people who have decided not to rebuild. But Barajas, whose home was among eight that burned on her street alone, counted herself and her husband among those who would rebuild.

Joe Rosato Jr.
Redwood Valley resident Tammie Barajas stands near the FEMA trailer where she and her husband are living while her their new home is built. She expects to live in the trailer another six months. (April 9, 2018)

The family was living in a FEMA trailer on her property, just feet from where her home once stood, while the family slogged through county approvals to finally get a permit to rebuild. Barajas hoped her new home would be up in time for her to stuff a Thanksgiving turkey in the oven.

“I love it here,” Barajas said. “I don’t see any reason to go and locate something else and move someplace else.”

But Barajas worried others wouldn’t feel the same. Although a newly built house already stood at the entrance to the neighborhood, numerous craters marked the places where homes had once stood, showing no signs of anyone intending to build anything.

“I’m just wondering if we’ll have neighbors,” she said, eyeing the wide open landscape that once had been filled with homes.

Randall credited her quick return as a homeowner to her dogged phone calls to building officials and anyone else who stood in her path. She had already lost too much and was anxious to open her own front door at the end of the day and sit in her own bathtub.

“We lost everything,” Randall said. “We lost pictures and yearbooks. Every gift everybody’s ever given you is gone.”

But now spring was delivering its own gift of sorts, covering the blackened hills with a carpet of bright, green grass, new buds and flowers Randall said she’d never even seen before.

“Now it looks like a whole new life,” she said, standing in front of her new home beneath a steady stream of rain. “It’s green and beautiful and ready to start all over.”

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