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 neighbourhood is barren now. All 1300 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 neighbourhood threw a house-less 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 neighbourhood would return from a fire that destroyed more property than any 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, even before the fire, hardly knew each other.

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Those neighbouring 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 grey, single-storey home on Espresso Court for six years. "And now we don't even know where our neighbours are."

Coffey Park is emblematic of many aging suburban California neighbourhoods. 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 90km north of San Francisco.

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

Residents in nearly half of the Coffey Park homes at the time of the bushfire - 43 per cent - were renters rather than owners. 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.

Construction has begun at the first house being rebuilt in Coffey Park in Santa Rosa, California. Photo / Washington Post.
Construction has begun at the first house being rebuilt in Coffey Park in Santa Rosa, California. Photo / Washington Post.

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 8000 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 3000 homes and apartments in Santa Rosa alone, or 5 per cent 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, have spiked in counties across the North Bay region, some by as much as 30 per cent.

"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 3000 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."

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The Tubbs fire flashed to life overnight on October 8, and it burned with stunning speed, pushed by 130km/h winds over a series of ridgelines into eastern Santa Rosa.

The flames raced through canyons and into Fountaingrove's 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.

The October fire devastated the Coffey Park neighbourhood in Santa Rosa, California, which still looks like a barren wasteland three months later. Photo / Washington Post
The October fire devastated the Coffey Park neighbourhood in Santa Rosa, California, which still looks like a barren wasteland three months later. Photo / Washington Post

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 neighbourhood 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 metres away. The fire jumped the highway, unimaginable before that night.

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.


Like his neighbours, 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, 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 organising the neighborhood group after he saw so much social media misinformation from Coffey Park residents, many of whom he had never met.

Okrepkie organized Q&A sessions, attended by hundreds, at the local community college, and 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 neighbours get better deals. But it will be months before he has a sense of who is staying.