A sign in Todd and Tracy Walker’s living room pronounces an end to the year-long, Atlas-fire detour in their lives: “It’s so good to be home.”
Their 1943 Soda Canyon farmhouse was one of several hundred houses incinerated during the October 2017 wildfire. On Nov. 9, they moved into their new home on the same site.
“It’s exciting and it felt good,” Tracy Walker said. “But it was also very eerie with the smoke in the air, the smell of smoke, the ash.”
Even as they moved into their reborn house, the Camp fire was destroying Paradise and other towns in the Sierra Nevada foothills 150 miles to the north. The smoke from 8,000 burning homes blanketed the Napa Valley and Soda Canyon.
Todd Walker said a longtime friend had to evacuate because of the Camp fire, though his house ended up surviving. In addition, the death of 18-year-old Vintage High School graduate Alaina Housley in the Thousand Oaks bar shooting left an emotional pall over Napa Valley.
With all of that weighing on the Walkers’ minds, the Nov. 9 move-in was a mixed experience.
“It was surreal,” Todd Walker said.
Still, as the sign says, “it’s good to be home.” The Walkers moved in just in time to celebrate Thanksgiving and their 30th wedding anniversary in coming days.
The Walkers’ return also apparently broke new ground. County Supervisor Alfredo Pedroza dropped by and told them he believed this to be the first completed, rebuilt Napa County home after the wildfire. Without a doubt, it is among the first.
“This is beautiful,” Pedroza told the Walkers as he looked at their new living room and kitchen.
They didn’t replicate the house they lost, which they had lived in for a year after moving to Soda Canyon from the city of Napa. Rather, they shrunk the house from 2,600 square feet to 1,800 square feet.
The old house had separate rooms for the kitchen and living room, in the style of the 1940s. The new house merges the spaces in the modern style, with a stove on an island. This is a farmhouse, 2018-style, comfortable, yet still simple.
“We wanted the farmhouse look,” Todd Walker said. “Fortunately, you can do that without fancy Corinthian marble imported from Italy.”
Even though the Walkers had occupied their new house only three days earlier, their living area on this recent day was free of boxes or any sign of move-in chaos. They had seemingly finished unpacking.
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“We don’t have quite as much stuff,” Todd Walker said with a laugh.
Not after the night of Oct. 8, 2017, a date that will live in local history for all the wrong reasons. That’s when winds topping 60 mph turned Atlas Peak and Soda Canyon into an inferno.
Todd Walker looked out the kitchen window after 10 p.m. to make certain the wind wasn’t damaging trees. He saw the brushy hill that looms across the street topped by smoke that reflected a red glow.
It was time to leave and quickly. Todd and Tracy Walker, Todd Walker’s mother and a niece drove away on Soda Canyon Road after checking on a neighbor.
“I never felt like I was in imminent danger,” Todd Walker said.
The Walkers, like many others, were under-insured and they ended up several hundred thousand dollars out-of-pocket on the rebuild. But Todd Walker said he felt supported by the contractor, the county and others.
“If there’s anything to come out of this story, it’s optimism,” Todd Walker said.
The Walkers salvaged only a few items from the fire. A barbecue looks untouched, though it sustained a slight amount of damage from melting. A white chair swing still hangs from one of the few oaks that wasn’t charred.
Even though the fire destroyed the house, blackened trees and melted a car engine, a donkey and several goats somehow survived in a fenced-in area.
The Walkers could have decided they had enough of a rural canyon with brush that can burn. Todd Walker said he’s certain there will be more fires in the area. Still, he noted the 1943 farm house had survived for decades before finally meeting its demise.
Their new house should have a better chance of surviving if fire comes again. It has such fire-resistant features as a metal roof, fiber cement siding and a cement porch floor pressed to mimic wood.
A 30th wedding anniversary can be occasion for a night on the town. But, as that sign in the living room says, “It’s so good to be home” – home, at long last – so the Walkers may make other plans.
“Stay home and cook in our new kitchen,” Todd Walker said.