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July 21, 2019
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Revisiting those who lost it all: October wildfire victims still on the road to recovery

  • Austin and Melissa Lely in front of one of their garden beds adjacent to the site of the home they lost in the October fire. Robert Grant

  • Photo by Robert Grant

By: Katherine Minkiewicz
August 24, 2018

Driving over Sonoma Mountain on a perfectly sunny Monday morning it is almost hard to believe that a raging, relentless wildfire swept through the lush landscape almost a year ago; however, once you turn onto Bennett Valley Road and Arnold Drive, you start to see the scars, singed trees and blackened earth, a scene almost out of an apocalyptic, dystopian movie. Yet up from the ashes progress in recovery can also be seen — foundations being laid, wooden frames being raised and contractors busily working.

Sonoma wildfire victims, Bee-Well Farms and Sandra Geary, are two such victims of the wildfires that can also be seen making steady progress in rebuilding their livelihoods. Last October, The Voice interviewed fire victims to get their take on a disaster that was quickly unfolding and almost a year since the fires started, we went back to revisit those who lost it all.

Bee-Well Farm

Austin and Melissa Lely, a young and passionate duo, started their dynamic farm in 2015 and were starting to break even with their new business in the fall of 2017; however, on Oct. 9 the Nuns Fire came barreling down the hills powered by strong winds and destroyed their house, part of the greenhouse, barn and much of the property’s infrastructure such as the wells and property fence.

The devastation of their 430-acre Glen Ellen sustainably focused farm, which produces a variety of seasonal produce, grass fed beef and pastured eggs, as shocking for the Lely’s and the thought of rebuilding was a daunting one.

“It was the worst feeling ever… it was surreal,” Austin said, who also mentioned they had both decided to leave their other jobs to be at the farm, but now had a gargantuan task and risk in front of them.

Despite initially feeling overwhelmed, the couple decided to get their hands even dirtier than usual and commit to the hard work in front of them, which meant getting permits and FEMA paperwork, replanting crops, coaxing the local honeybees to come back and getting new water lines and wells.

“Recovering has been a long process. We got going right away working with grants from the NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) and the FSA (Farm Service Agency), which are programs of the USDA and we were able to redo the fence lines on the property, which is huge given that we have livestock, cows and goats,” Melissa explained. “And that was a huge task just getting the ranch up and functioning again and at the same time trying to plant and seed, harvest and try to make it to the market and make a living… it has definitely been a struggle this year.”

The only structure that didn’t require replacing was their feed barn and green house and other survivors included their goats, chickens and cows, all of whom seem unfazed by the flurry of work that’s been going on for 10 months.

While the two have had moments where their heads hang low and they question the prospect of the behemoth task at hand, the two evoke an incredible feeling of resilience and positivity, their cheery mood and smiles almost contagious.

“We get overwhelmed sometimes… and (the most challenging thing) has been staying mentally energized and motivated, but then we just look up and we are in paradise,” Austin said.

The farm may have seemed like a place of utter destruction, a war zone, as Austin described it, with exploding gas tanks and snapping branches, yet the wide expanse of land is now buzzing with life and that same resilient attitude.

Vibrant, summer crops such as squash, cherry tomatoes, heirloom tomatoes, peppers, flowers and herbs have been thriving in their beds. 

Their excitable one-year-old dog was sticking his nose in various places and the Momma’s and the Papa’s “California Dreaming,” was playing, adding a cheerful note as they spoke about how their business has been doing since recovery began.

“We’re still trying to grow at this point, the cattle herd doubled over winter, we got more chickens, we added a pumpkin patch and despite it all we are still trying to keep on track to grow,” Melissa said.

They’ve also continued with their regularly scheduled visits to the Sonoma Farmer’s Market every Friday and the Oakmont Farmer’s Market every Saturday. Restaurants in their area, Breakaway Cafe in Sonoma and Tips Roadside in Kenwood, have also picked up their produce and are featuring it in several dishes.

For more information on Bee-Well Farm, visit: bee-wellfarms.com.

The Geary’s 

In a wildfire event a little closer to home, Sandra Geary and her husband lost their two-story Fountain Grove home in the Sonoma Complex Fire, which was responsible for destroying hundreds of homes in the Santa Rosa area.

The Geary’s were on a leisurely weekend camping trip when they found out their home was completely burned to the ground.

Friends ran to their RV door and frantically knocked on their door, telling them to turn on the TV and to their horror, there was an image of their burning home, which was featured as part of the local news coverage.

Ten months later, the Geary’s are getting ready to get their final building permit and lay the foundation to their new home.

“We are submitting our building plans finally, but already I drive around and I see other people have started to build, but we’ve had 30 trees removed from our property and some of the stumps were carved into chairs for us on the side of the hill. It is amazing to see these come from burned out trees. Also, they just started getting ready for foundation placement, I’m really excited,” Geary said of the progress they’ve made so far.

The new single story home will be around 2,900 square feet with a five car garage and three bedrooms and two and a half baths.

Despite Geary’s excitement, getting past the initial grief of losing everything has been hard.

“(It has been hard) because I still feel temporary in this house we rent. We can’t paint walls or hang too many paintings. I just don’t feel settled. Each day we realize that things are still lost, wedding photos and baby pictures ect.,” Gearly explained. “In the beginning I think we were in shock, but then you start to realize how much you have lost.”

Geary says the most difficult thing about recovery so far has been the unexpected building costs and coming to terms with the fact that they will eventually have to get some sort of loan. The long process has also been tiresome.

When asked if Geary has learned anything from the whole experience, she said the biggest takeaway is that people in general have too much stuff — too many material goods.

“The number one thing I think is honestly, Americans have too much stuff. People have been offering me things and it has been nice, but it also gets to be too much. I just want to be able to get by with the minimum,” Geary said, also mentioning that everyone has been so generous overall. “I like to think that our house is furnished with friendship, so that part is fun.”