Recovering from fires in Santa Rosa

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Wednesday, June 13th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.

Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

KENT COVINGTON, HOST: And I’m Kent Covington. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: hope from ashes.

Last October, wildfires swept through several counties in the heart of California’s wine country. Around 100-thousand people were forced to flee their homes as flames swept through whole neighborhoods. The fires destroyed some 89-hundred homes and businesses. Forty-three people died. That made the wildfires one of the worst natural disasters in California’s history.

REICHARD: In Sonoma County, the city of Santa Rosa suffered the greatest losses with entire subdivisions burned. Nine months later, the town is still recovering. Many who lost homes are looking ahead to the rebuilding process while still grieving what they lost. WORLD Radio’s Sarah Schweinsberg recently visited the area. She spoke with one woman who lost her home to the fires but finds hope in her faith.

AUDIO: Sound of car starting and radio music playing and then Kerstin talking

SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: Kerstin Fletcher doesn’t come back to her old home site often, even though it’s only a five-minute drive from where she now lives.

That’s because there’s nothing left of the life her family once shared there.

FLETCHER: You know, it’s really unreal to think that overnight your entire place is just ashes.

Fletcher’s old cul de sac used to buzz with activities—children riding bikes, neighbors coming and going, friends mingling at block parties. Now it’s quiet.

FLETCHER: So Basically if you go straight, all those things are gone. All the houses are gone…

Her two-story house is gone and the streets in every direction are almost completely empty. All that still stands on the flat, dirt lots are old telephone poles, naked trees, and green house number signs indicating where homes used to stand.

The fire was so powerful that it jumped a six-lane highway before igniting Fletcher’s neighborhood. It burned more than 1,200 houses in this one area.

The Fletchers were camping at the beach when the fire burned its way toward their home. The next morning they waited for news.

FLETCHER: Carl showed me the video that our neighbors had taken…then we knew for sure, for certain, it was all gone, and so off and on throughout the day, I definitely cried.

Carl is Fletcher’s husband and the pastor of a local church. His congregation helped the family find somewhere to stay temporarily.

Now the Fletchers have a new house, but it doesn’t yet feel like home.

As the sun sets, Kerstin Fletcher walks over her old lot’s gray, charred earth and remembers her favorite part of the property: the yard.

FLETCHER: This was all stone and succulents and wild flowers, and we had several peach trees that had luscious peaches, but then we had a gate with flowers growing over it, and you walked into a little courtyard and there were some chairs and a table and lanterns and then a cherry tree, and we had lots of roses. It was just such a peaceful place.

Fletcher says insurance won’t come close to covering the monetary value of the items they lost inside their home. And some things with sentimental value can’t be replaced.

FLETCHER: We had things that were meaningful and that our kids loved and saved for.

Things like home videos, picture albums, Kerstin’s wedding dress, and a carefully built collection of musical instruments and family heirlooms.

Kerstin lost journals belonging to her mother who died when she was 19. Journals that she had not yet read. And Kerstin and Carl had written journals to each of their children since they were born.

FLETCHER: We realized the loss of the things that are sort of priceless, like our journals of the kids’ lives and things that you just don’t remember the funny things that they did when they were little.

Kerstin is also an artist and lost paintings she’d done of her children. Thankfully, she still has digital copies of some of them.

FLETCHER: This was one of my favorite paintings where they were sitting on the side of our house actually on this old picnic table.

Back at the Fletcher’s new home, Kerstin pulls a shoebox off a shelf in the garage. It’s full of remnants that survived the fire.

FLETCHER: Umm this is my mother’s scissor. I don’t even know what this is. This was a bracelet my mom gave me that had like turquoise and silver, one of our baby spoons.

Kerstin Fletcher says their new lives sometimes look like those items that survived. Almost unrecognizable. New clothes, new furniture, new neighborhood, new decor, new routines. Since the fires she hasn’t been able to resume painting.

FLETCHER: To actually paint or draw takes a lot of mental energy and we’ve, we feel super depleted…

But Fletcher says through the fire they’ve drawn closer to their church and community. She says each of the items in their new house has a story of kindness behind it. Friends gifted them items like new china, blankets, a new keyboard. A firefighter friend made them a new dining room table.

FLETCHER: And I’m thinking like maybe a year from now we’ll get it, and he and his wife brought it right after we moved in.

The tragedy has also given Kerstin Fletcher an opportunity to share hope with others. She’s gotten to speak with women’s groups about her experience and shares regular updates on a blog and Facebook.

FLETCHER: I was overwhelmed with how much it meant to people that I was opening up to the struggles we were having or how it was really being us.

Fletcher says those struggles are still painful, but there’s been daily reminders that her family isn’t alone.

FLETCHER: There’s times where it all became a little much, and I just would go in the bedroom and definitely crack open the word of God every day. And it was interesting what I would read to because I read about Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and the fire and how amazingly there’s another guy in there with them, and he looks like the son of God and knowing that Jesus, his presence is always with us and that he never had an earthly home of all things. That was an incredible comfort for me.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg reporting from Santa Rosa, California.

(Photo/Sarah Schweinsberg)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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