Coffey Park residents rejected the role of victim after Tubbs Fire

The scorched earth that had once been their front yard looked like hell, so Richard Lane and his wife Alison did something about it. Not long after their house on Crimson Lane in the Coffey Park neighborhood went up in flames, they planted a dozen or so plastic pink flamingos in the dirt.

That flamboyance of birds — yes, that is the proper collective noun for a group of flamingos — struck a whimsical, offbeat note amid the charred remains of the neighborhood.

That was the plan. As a former protester and longtime grassroots organizer who made his living choreographing sword fights for theatrical productions — he literally wrote the book on swashbuckling — Lane is a master of the defiant gesture.

After growing up on Long Island, he moved to New York City in the 1980s to pursue acting. On a lark, he signed up for a class called “Fencing for Actors” — a decision that led to his three-decade career in the art of “stage combat.”

“Over 30 years,” he estimates, “I probably choreographed ‘Romeo and Juliet’ 75 times.”

Running through that tragedy, as Lane well knows, is the idea that the “star-crossed” lovers are at the mercy of fate, their misery preordained.

That is not the story of Coffee Park. An ethnically diverse neighborhood bounded by Highway 101 to the east and farmland to the west, it featured mostly two-and three-bedroom homes built during the 1980s by developers like Art Candiotti and Tux Tuxhorn. While it’s often described as working class, as Santa Rosa native Gabe Meline wrote in 2018, the history of Coffey Park “shows a demographic climbing the rungs of the economic ladder.”

That embodiment of the American dream turned into a nightmare around 2 am on Oct. 9, 2017, as embers and flames borne by gale force winds from the northeast crossed the 6-lane freeway and into Coffey Park, where the fire consumed 1,422 homes.

Today, an absence of mature trees is the only clue that an inferno tore through here five years ago. Setting aside the 40 or so lots whose owners chose not to rebuild, says Jesse Oswald, Santa Rosa’s chief building officer, “Coffey Park is 99.9% done.”

True, it is a compact, flat, easily accessible neighborhood in Santa Rosa. Many of its residents had at least some insurance. Those factors abetted its swift comeback.

But the main reason for the resurrection of this plucky, polygon neighborhood is that the people who live there flipped the script the fire handed them. They rejected their roles as victims and had the grit and agency to take control of their fate.

Such defiance and resolve has been on display throughout the North Bay in all the wildfires to beset it in recent years. But nowhere has it been more concentrated, or effective, than in Coffey Park.

Emerging stronger

Rather than retreat into their individual anguish following the inferno, residents banded together and leaned on each other. By organizing, sharing knowledge and resources; By hectoring, browbeating, sweet-talking and otherwise persuading city officials and politicians to help them, this group of survivors served as the driving force behind a remarkably speedy recovery.

“Through trauma we’re ripped open, but often times a stronger, better version of ourselves can emerge,” said Dr. Adrienne Heinz, a Healdsburg-based psychotherapist who is also a research scientist at the National Center for Posttraumatic Stress at the US Department of Veterans Affairs and Stanford University.

Post-traumatic growth is “not the expectation,” she qualified. “There are people who have too many cumulative burdens and struggles to be able to experience something like this after something terrible.”

Others, however, can bounce back, “with the right system of support, whether it’s their family or community of place of worship.”

Or, perhaps, Wine Wednesday, the beloved Coffey Park institution founded by middle school teacher Tricia Woods, who had the idea to organize weekly hump-day gatherings to imbibe, yes — but also to bond and commiserate with the only other people in the world who knew exactly what they’d been through.

Referring to studies done with cancer survivors, Heinz spoke of the “deeper appreciation for being alive when they come out the other side.”

Each day feels like more of “a blessing and a gift. It deepens your relationships with others. You have this connection that is more visceral and authentic after you’ve gone through something terrible, together. There are possibilities in life you might not have imagined.”

Paying it forward

Anne Barbour could not have imagined that, after 33 years in the grocery business, she would become an expert on debris removal, contractors, insurance and myriad other rebuild-related topics. She had no inkling, before joining the neighborhood support group Coffey Strong, that she would spend hundreds of hours restoring the neighborhood’s entryway, or spend five months wrangling — along with similarly heroic Sasha Butler and Steve Rahmn — “right of entry” agreements from 42 homeowners, many of whom had left for parts unknown, in order to rebuild the burnt, crumbling Hopper Wall, which lined both sides of the main drag through Coffey Park, and stood for nearly 3 years as a grim reminder of the disaster.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button