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

Work crews remove debris at the site of a home destroyed by fires in the Coffey Park area of Santa Rosa, Calif., last month. Thousands of homes and other structures were destroyed by wildfires in the area.
Jeff Chiu
Work crews remove debris at the site of a home destroyed by fires in the Coffey Park area of Santa Rosa, Calif., last month. Thousands of homes and other structures were destroyed by wildfires in the area.

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 2017 KQED

April Dembosky is the health reporter for The California Report and KQED News. She covers health policy and public health, and has reported extensively on the economics of health care, the roll-out of the Affordable Care Act in California, mental health and end-of-life issues. Her work is regularly rebroadcast on NPR and has been recognized with awards from the Society for Professional Journalists (for sports reporting), and the Association of Health Care Journalists (for a story about pediatric hospice). Her hour-long radio documentary about home funeralswon the Best New Artist award from the Third Coast International Audio Festival in 2009. April occasionally moonlights on the arts beat, covering music and dance. Her story about the first symphony orchestra at Burning Man won the award for Best Use of Sound from the Public Radio News Directors Inc. Before joining KQED in 2013, April covered technology and Silicon Valley for The Financial Times, and freelanced for Marketplace and The New York Times. She is a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and Smith College.
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