What was once a crowded row of houses along Hopper Avenue in Santa Rosa is now a vast dirt plain.
But in empty lot after empty lot, people have put up Christmas trees. Red ribbons and shimmering silver tinsel defy the apocalyptic landscape.
“The spirit of Christmas isn’t gone, even though the rest of my neighborhood is gone,” said Louis Pell, as he and his 8-year-old daughter, Lilly, staked a 10-foot noble fir in the spot where their front door used to be.
“I think everybody here is the happiest they’ve been in months, doing this.”
The working-class neighborhood of Coffey Park was razed by October’s deadly North Bay fires. Pell was born in the house that stood here, and he’s been coming back regularly to visit the ruins.
This time, a local disaster response team was in the neighborhood handing out free trees and decorations. Community groups have also hung battery-powered Christmas lights, and organized neighborhood Christmas parties, with sleigh rides and Santa visits. They even hauled in a pile of snow.
“The kids were having snowball fights,” said Kadyn Schumann, director for the community and disaster response team. “It was really magical.”
The night the fires broke out in October, flames closed in on Pell’s house from both sides. Lilly and her dad’s girlfriend fled, but her dad stayed behind to help rescue their neighbors.
“It was scary because my dad’s phone was dead,” Lilly remembers. “We didn’t know if he was dead or if he was alive, or if he was hurt or if he wasn’t.”
Pell and Lilly have been staying with friends in south Santa Rosa since the fire. Their host put up a tree a couple of weeks ago.
“But this one will be ours,” Pell said, “and she gets to decorate it, which is going to be the fun part.”
Pell’s neighbor, Wayne Sims from across the street, comes over with a sledgehammer to help secure the tree. Sims’ house and a few next to his survived the fire. But everything he once saw from his front window is gone. Until now, at night, it was pitch black.
“It was pretty eerie for a while because it was just light enough that you could see all these dead trees. It’s like watching a scary movie,” he said.
“So, for us to have some light here makes a huge difference. You can feel that energy. I love it.”
Lilly hangs one of the glittery blue Christmas balls on a low branch.
“It gives me happy feelings. I feel like we’re at the staircase again,” she said. “This is where we usually would put our tree.”
Pell didn’t have insurance, and he can’t afford to rebuild right now. He’s not sure what they’ll do for Christmas. But at some point, he says, they’ll definitely stop by here to visit the tree.
“It makes me feel like our house is still standing,” Lilly said. “It’s not like we can’t ever see our house again. It will always be there. You just can’t see it but I can feel it.”