SALT LAKE CITY — When his Friday and Saturday night shifts at the movie theater were over and the clock was nearing midnight, teenager Mark Spencer would grab his longboard and glide the three blocks down to Santiago Drive where we lived and come in for late-night conversation.
He was there to hang out with my son and my daughters, and sometimes — many times — he'd come into our bedroom to sit on the edge of the bed as my wife and I sat up and heard about his day or his week and his post-high school plans — mission, college, probably study landscape design, he would say.
This was life in Coffey Park, a quaint Santa Rosa neighborhood in Northern California that today is a moonscape of dust and debris from the firestorm that ravaged, well, everything.
News organizations from throughout the nation descended on the neighborhood this week, including our team from the Deseret News. Journalists Tad Walch and Scott Winterton returned to the Reisners property with them, and talked with the Darrimons, whose stories are told in the Deseret News today. All lost their homes, as did Mark's parents. All are our friends.
The Spencers have lived here since the mid-'80s. Mark's dad is a rockhound, and my children often came home from church with polished stones that he had carefully crafted. When the subdivision was first planned, Mark said his dad spent the night in a hotel, as did others who would become his future neighbors. Up early and in line the next day, they purchased a little piece of Wine Country to begin building a life.
Mark's mom, Kay, wrote the following this week on Facebook:
"For me, the sadness is not so much about the stuff but the place, and our neighbors, many of whom we moved in with together. When I saw this place, it was a walnut orchard, then a clearing of land with carved areas for roads. We bought this house before anything was built. Steve stayed overnight with our future neighbors to make a deposit. Four kids raised here, all those memories."
Mark is now the father of five children; the last two, twins Anna and Audrey, were born this summer. He and his wife, Lora, met in Santa Rosa, where she also lived. We heard about her on the edge of that bed and knew her ourselves. We all became friends. It's a great thing to see great teenagers become amazing adults.
They're now 3,000 miles away, living in Orlando, where Mark said he sees similarities between Coffey Park and his new Florida neighborhood. He did become a designer, now designing and managing portions of theme parks for Universal, including one being built in Beijing.
Mark and my own family felt a bit helpless this week. But we also feel guilty for feeling loss, because our loss is less tangible than friends who have lost homes and face disrupted lives. We had long ago moved away. And other families have lost loved ones in the fires.
"The immediate feelings, of course, are shock, but I haven't felt as terrible maybe as I could have because I feel lucky that my parents are retired so they're not trying to get back on their feet and get back to work. … But it's a shock and devastating for the whole community," Mark told me this week.
Among the many stories journalists are telling are the remarkable story of survival of the Santa Rosa couple who spent more than six hours in a pool and survived. Or the ongoing story of disaster as the “islands of fires” continue into this weekend.
Mark was moved to tell a different story this week. He took the burned-out images of Coffey Park that have gone worldwide and paired them with an image of the neighborhood before the fire. He chronicled some of the moments of his young life, walking to school, longboarding to a house, and even the silly-but-at-the-time-vitally-important moments that make up a life:
"The backyard playhouse where I kissed a girl."
"Cool guy that would open his gate after school for the kids."
"Avoid this house on Halloween; they give out pretzels."
All those houses are gone now, but they helped shape so many people. Social media is replete with similar memories this week. So residents are choosing to remember the good, and those stories will continue to be told and remembered.Comment on this story
The neighborhood will be different when it's rebuilt. But the memories will start again. Change can become something special.
As Kay continued in her Facebook post:
"... as I first heard about the loss, I was excited that I wouldn't have to clean out that over-full garage or my many closets of shoes and clothes and stuff that needed a good thinning. … We are hoping the winds will stop and the weather will cool and any advantage that can bring this snaking fire to an end. Many of my friends have lost their homes, and many others in all parts of town are at risk."
From afar, we all pray for the storm to calm.