Jeff Okrepkie stands by the lot where his house stood in the Coffey Park area of Santa Rosa, Calif. After losing his home in the wildfires last fall, Okrepkie has organized a neighborhood group to help those like him who want to rebuild. (Preston Gannaway/FTWP)

A Christmas tree stands in what was once Jeff Okrepkie's foyer in Coffey Park, a few red and gold ornaments hanging from its damp branches.

Once a picture of planned suburbia, the neighborhood is barren now. All 1,300 homes burned during a few overnight hours in October, a firestorm sweeping through with a mix of high winds and flame so violent that it pushed parked cars blocks away.

But in a gesture of resilience, the neighborhood threw a houseless holiday party last month, trucking in snow from Lake Tahoe, displaying a Santa's sleigh and dangling battery-powered lights from utility poles. It was a sign the starter-home neighborhood would return from a fire that destroyed more property than any other in California history and left 22 people dead.

The bittersweet gathering of the Coffey Park diaspora also had a more practical purpose: to bring together community members who, before the fire, hardly knew one another.

Those neighboring strangers are uniting, believing that a strength-in-numbers approach to negotiating with builders, lobbying City Hall and settling with insurance companies will revive the place they once lived in a way that everyone will still be able to afford.

"I didn't know many people beyond my own street here," said Okrepkie, who had lived with his wife in a gray, single-story home on Espresso Court for six years. "And now we don't even know where our neighbors are."

Coffey Park is emblematic of many aging suburban neighborhoods in California. Its cul-de-sacs are populated by students, recent graduates in low-paying jobs and other house-sharing transients living next to busy young families with two incomes and little time. Now California's urgent task of expanding affordable housing for a squeezed working class is shared by this city about 55 miles north of San Francisco.

The barriers to achieving that goal here among the ashes are extraordinarily high as the neighborhood rebuilds from a historic tragedy.


The October wildfire devastated the Coffey Park neighborhood in Santa Rosa, Calif., which still looks like a barren wasteland three months later. (Preston Gannaway/FTWP)

Residents in nearly half of the Coffey Park homes at the time of the wildfire — 43 percent — were renters. The majority are not expected to return, and many underinsured landlords who never imagined that all their properties would burn at once are selling off vacant lots to developers with company profit in mind.

How many homeowners rebuild will determine the character of the Coffey Park that emerges from the taped-off plots — some cleared, some still a jumble of burned-out cars, melted garbage cans and charred trees. An estimated 8,000 residents of Sonoma County, where this city is the government seat, are simply planning to leave.

Much of the expected exodus is the result of housing costs. The flames destroyed 3,000 homes and apartments in Santa Rosa alone, or 5 percent of the city's housing stock. The sudden loss has rippled across a region that already had some of the nation's highest costs of living. Since the October fire, median home prices and rents, driven largely by the thousands of displaced residents, have spiked in counties across the North Bay region, some by as much as 30 percent.

"I hope that we can get the vast majority of these residents to stay in Santa Rosa, but we had a huge housing problem even before this," said Chris Coursey, the city's mayor. "This has created a kind of a two-pronged problem for the city: We need to help 3,000 people get back to where they want to be, but we also need to concentrate on making sure that five years from now we're not back to 2017."


Construction has begun at the first house being rebuilt in Coffey Park. (Preston Gannaway/FTWP)
Avoiding 250 piles of ash

The Tubbs Fire flashed to life overnight on Oct. 8, and it burned with stunning speed, pushed by 80-mph winds over a series of ridgelines into eastern Santa Rosa.

The flames raced through ­canyons and into the Fountaingrove neighborhoods large hillside houses, wine-country resort hotels, weekend homes and thickly wooded yards. The same area burned in the last major fire here — the 1964 Hanley Fire — but at the time no one had yet built in the dry hills.

Local officials have questioned whether Fountaingrove should be restored. But given the extreme housing shortage, the City Council voted last month to approve 250 new homes for the neighborhood in addition to any that residents rebuild. Coursey voted against the project.

"I'm not ready to say that we're just going to go ahead and pretend nothing happened," he said. "We've got to put housing up there. But in addition we need to think about how to do it differently to make sure we don't end up with 250 piles of ash."

After the fire burned through Fountaingrove, a cascade of sparks began hitting the timberlines on the east side of six-lane Highway 101. Then the oaks and eucalyptus exploded, casting off embers the size of basketballs that the heavy winds blew hundreds of yards away. The fire jumped the highway, unimaginable before that night.


An October wildfire burned in California before sunrise along Highway 12, east of Santa Rosa. (Stuart Palley/FTWP)

A Kmart burned to the ground. So did the extended-stay hotel next to it. Then the flames cut an aimless path through a business district before sweeping into working-class suburbia.

"We never thought it would reach this far," Okrepkie said.

Since its construction in the mid-1980s, Coffey Park has been a place where families sought starter homes or affordable rentals, which filled with firemen, police officers, teachers, diner owners, government workers and insurance salesmen.

Now the easiest way to find it is to follow the dump trucks. They pass the "Coffey Park Rises" sign at the four-way stop and the one next to it that reads, "Want to rebuild your home or sell your lot?"

"It was the heartbeat of the city," said Okrepkie, a commercial insurance salesman and now president of the neighborhood's post-fire Coffey Strong advocacy group.

Like his neighbors, Okrepkie lost everything: his 2-year-old son Tillman's school projects and Christmas presents, the family's ornaments and photographs, keepsakes and computers.

He and his wife, Stephanie, were married in April, and when it came time to begin tallying what had been lost and what would be needed again, they pulled up their three-month-old online wedding registry for reference.

Okrepkie began organizing the neighborhood group after he saw so much social media misinformation from Coffey Park residents, many of whom he had never met.

They didn't understand the rebuilding process. Some were getting wildly different settlements from the same insurance companies, and others were being quoted various prices from the same developers. Many had not had their property appraised in years and had no idea what they should expect to get.

Okrepkie organized Q&A sessions, attended by hundreds, at the local community college, and he helped form an elected board that plans to vote on how to spend donated money.

The group is building a website that will list each Coffey Park homeowner's insurance company, settlement amount and builder quotes — leverage that has already helped some neighbors get better deals. But it will be months before he has a sense of who is staying.

His neighbor has sold her lot and moved to Costa Rica. The family across the street is planning to rebuild, but their lot is still in ruins, their son's torched basketball hoop standing sentinel in the driveway.

"Nobody knows what this place is going to look like," he said. "But it's going to look very, very different externally."


Residents listen and take notes during a meeting in Santa Rosa, Calif., on Jan. 9. Jeff Okrepkie helped organize the neighborhood group to help others from Coffey Park navigate the rebuilding process. (Preston Gannaway/FTWP)
The original builders

More than 30 years ago, those who bought in the new Coffey Park development could choose from eight floor plans, and since the fire, the planning department and some of the original builders have pulled those out of file-
cabinet drawers.

Some builders are offering to reconstruct those homes with some changes, ideally if streets and blocks sign up together. Doing so in bulk could shave as much as 30 percent off construction costs.

John Allen, a project manager for APM Homes, said the company built 500 of Coffey Park's original houses. The firm brought the original draftsman out of retirement to update those floor plans, which are being offered to those looking to rebuild.

On a rainy recent morning, the neighborhood was busy with churning backhoes and Environmental Protection Agency inspectors pulling asbestos out of some sites. Along Hopper Street, a Coldwell Banker "For Sale" sign stood in one lot, which Allen's company is negotiating to buy.

"It's a business opportunity," he said, explaining that buying lots and building one-off homes is more profitable. "But we prefer not to do it this way, not here."


A lot, being cleared after the wildfires, is for sale in Coffey Park. (Preston Gannaway/FTWP)

At the corner of Hopper and Scarlet, a makeshift sign says, "Miss U Guys."

Jodi Curtis, who works for the county transit department, lives a few blocks away, on the far side of Coffey Park from the Okrepkie family, whom she had never met.

The house she learned was hers while on her honeymoon at Disneyland more than a dozen years ago burned to the ground, along with the Mickey Mouse ears that her husband traced in their back yard with lava rock.

The loss of the house remains raw, especially to the couple's 13-year-old daughter, Madison, who would not visit the site for a month afterward. The family has been living in a two-bedroom apartment, which Curtis says flatly "is not home."

Who returns matters to Curtis. It will determine who attends Madison's charter school, which never shut down after the fire.

"She's been in class with those kids since preschool," Curtis said. "So they had each other, and they had all gone through this same thing."

Curtis has picked a new design to replace the lost home, and she is excited. It will be her choice rather than a fixed plan. A few others on her street have done the same, and she believes the neighborhood that emerges will be stronger than the one that burned.

"The community already has come out a lot closer," she said. "Now we just want to get our routine back to normal."


Little evidence of Coffey Park’s homes remains. (Preston Gannaway/FTWP)