Calif. Fire Victims Put Up Christmas Trees Where Homes Once Stood

Dec 23, 2017

What was once a crowded row of houses along Hopper Avenue in Santa Rosa, Calif., 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 landscape.

Louis Pell and his 8-year-old daughter Lilly staked a 10-foot noble fir in the spot where their front door used to be. In October, wildfires in Northern California destroyed thousands of homes in Santa Rosa, including those in the Coffey Park neighborhood.

"The spirit of Christmas isn't gone, even though like the rest of my neighborhood is gone," Louis Pell says. "Like everybody here is the happiest they've been in months, doing this."

Pell and daughter Lilly have been staying with friends since the fire. Their host put up a tree a couple weeks ago.

"But, this one will be ours, so. And she gets to decorate it, which is gonna be the fun part," Pell says.

A local disaster response team has been handing out the trees and decorations for free. The group's director Kadyn Schumann says they've also hosted block parties and Santa visits, and even hauled in a big pile of snow that the kids used to have snowball fights. It's been 15 years since it snowed in Santa Rosa.

"You know it was really, it was magical," Schumann says.

While decorating her Christmas tree, Lilly Pell says she thinks they're where the staircase in their home used to be.

"This is where we usually would put our tree," she says. She crawls under the tree and looks up through the branches. "Makes me feel like our house is still standing. 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."

Lilly's dad didn't have homeowners insurance and he says 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 this lot to see their tree.

Isabel Dobrin in Digital News produced this story for the Web.

Copyright 2018 KQED. To see more, visit KQED.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A massive wildfire continues to burn in Southern California. The Thomas fire is now the largest in the state's history and still threatens homes and businesses in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties. October wildfires in Northern California burned thousands of homes in Santa Rosa, destroyed most of an entire working class neighborhood. From member station KQED, April Dembosky reports that some residents are adapting their Christmas traditions to devastation.

APRIL DEMBOSKY, BYLINE: 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 landscape.

LOUIS PELL: Morbid, bizarre.

LILLY PELL: Festive.

LOUIS PELL: Lilly thinks it's festive.

DEMBOSKY: Louis Pell and his 8-year-old daughter Lilly are staking a 10-foot noble fir in the spot where their front door used to be.

LOUIS PELL: The spirit of Christmas isn't gone, even though, like, the rest of my neighborhood is gone. Like, everybody here is, like, the happiest they've been in months doing this.

DEMBOSKY: Pell and Lilly have been staying with friends since the fire. Their hosts put up a tree a couple of weeks ago.

LOUIS PELL: But this one will be ours, so - and she gets to decorate it, which is going to be the fun part.

Good job, Lilly.

DEMBOSKY: A local disaster response team has been handing out the trees and decorations for free. The group's director, Kadyn Schumann, says they've also hosted block parties and Santa visits and even hauled in a big pile of snow.

KADYN SCHUMANN: Kids were having snowball fights.

DEMBOSKY: It's been 15 years since it snowed in Santa Rosa.

SCHUMANN: You know, it was really - it was magical.

LILLY: Gives me happy feelings.

DEMBOSKY: Lilly Pell hangs one of the glittery blue Christmas balls on her tree.

LILLY: I feel like we're at the staircase again. This is where we usually would put our tree.

DEMBOSKY: She crawls under the tree and looks up through the branches.

LILLY: Makes me feel like our house is still standing. 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.

DEMBOSKY: Lilly's dad didn't have homeowner's insurance. And he says 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 this lot to see their tree.

For NPR News, I'm April Dembosky in Santa Rosa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.