Carr Fire Downtown Housing Project: Volunteers Transform Neglected Cottage For Fire Survivors

Shortly after the Carr Fire destroyed more than 1,000 north state homes, Wendy Hill and her fiance Sam Van Kirk took a walk one evening in their downtown Redding neighborhood. They’d just returned from being evacuated, so the topic of the tragedy that had left so many people homeless was fresh on their minds.

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Although for their day jobs she’s an aesthetic nurse specialist, and he’s an OB/GYN physician, they’re no strangers to fixing up houses, as they’ve meticulously remodeled their historic stone home, doing much of the work themselves. For them, remodeling is part hobby, part labor of  love.

Sam Van Kirk and Wendy Hill, before the
Carr Fire home-improvement project.

They talked about survivors’ guilt, and how they wanted to do something to help those who needed a place to live.

“We were safe in our downtown sanctuary, while we watched all of the other houses burning and wanted to share our refuge,” Wendy said.

“We patrolled our lonely neighborhood all weekend trying to figure out how we could help. Where were all of these people going to go?”

As they walked and talked they pointed out several vacant homes in their own neighborhood, and they thought how it would be perfect if those vacant homes could somehow be matched up with those displaced by the Carr Fire. An idea formed: Get community volunteers to fix up vacant, neglected homes, and make them available for Carr Fire survivors.

In their dreams, enough volunteers would come together to provide cosmetic help for a house that had seen better days to make it move-in ready within, oh, about a week, just like in the home-improvement reality shows.

They found the ideal house on Willis Street. It fit the couple’s project-home criteria:  The property had to be close to downtown Redding, it must be currently vacant, not listed for sale or rent, and the property owner must rent to a Carr fire survivor at a fair price. Furthermore, the owners must agree to give back a portion of the rent for a year, to be used to recoup costs for materials and supplies, as well as be used for subsequent projects for Carr Fire survivors.

The home’s sad history made it an even more appealing candidate.

More than 30 years ago a Redding real estate agent bought the home as an investment property. His ultimate goal was to leave a financial legacy for his daughter one day in the form of the rental property. This man was deeply involved in his church and committed to affordable rental opportunities. But he inadvertently rented to a nightmare tenant, someone who used the house as a haven for heroin and prostitution. It took eight months to evict the tenant, but by then, the damage was done. The house was trashed. The man who owned the house became ill and died. The surviving daughter and her mother tried to clean up the little house and make improvements, but they ran out of money and resources.

This old Willis Street house had seen better days, and was sorely in need of some TLC.

So there the house sat, vacant, for two years. Unsavory people broke into the house and had their way with it.

Where most rational people saw a run-down eyesore beyond salvation, Wendy and Sam saw potential, and a win-win-win situation. This project would benefit the property owner who lacked the resources to improve the home, it would benefit the neighborhood and community at large by turning a blighted home into a source of pride, but most of all, it would benefit someone made homeless by the Carr Fire.

An agreement was reached with the owner to lock in the rent at a reasonable price for a Carr Fire survivor only, and an understanding that all the donated furnishings and housewares would belong to the fire family, not the property owner. Papers were signed and the process began in earnest the last week in July.

Word spread that the project was in dire need of volunteers to immediately help turn a neglected old house into a charming home for a Carr Fire survivor.

The Carr Fire Downtown Housing Volunteer Project was born.

The first days on the project were the worst. The volunteers with the strongest stomachs (mainly nurses) literally used shovels to remove garbage and waste from the home. More than nine truckloads of trash and debris were taken to the landfill, as well as about 20 yards of green waste, and more loads of rock and concrete.

Kevin Baird and Katie Luther toss a broken window into a truck for disposal.

An assortment of volunteers did an assortment of duties. Wendy and Sam were there, too, on weekends and at night, after work, doing everything from painting walls to sanding floors.

Wendy Hill and Sam Van Kirk pause from sanding old wood floors late at night.

The “fairly simple” project that Sam and Wendy dreamed could be knocked out within seven days stretched into weeks as the scope grew.

The back of the house was previously boarded up to prevent more squatters from gaining entry.

But little by little, day after day, hour after hour, the one-bedroom, one-bathroom little house began exuding charm and character.

Even the back of the house is looking better.

The former pink, peeling paint had to go.

The siding was sanded, caulked and covered with fresh coats of taupe and white.

Inside the house, the bathroom was previously disgusting, but technically functional.

With fresh paint, a new toilet, sink and tiled floor, the bathroom looked good as new.

The same was true in the living room, partially covered with rumpled carpets saturated with all matter of fluids and solids deposited by humans and animals.

The carpets were removed, which revealed the original Douglas fir floors that were then scrubbed and sanded. The walls were painted, and the broken windows were replaced with new windows that fit the same openings.

Perhaps the biggest, most dramatic changes were to the home’s curbside view. Before, the home looked like one of the worst houses on the street.

After, with paint and landscaping, the house is on its way to becoming a respectable member of the neighborhood once again.

The project even inspired the couple next door to remove the wall of shrubs that had been between the two homes’ back yards, something they’d left as a barrier to keep transients who’d squatted in the vacant house from coming into the couple’s yard.

Next door neighbors Nathan and Drew Pruzaniek were hopeful enough by the improvements on the other side of their fence to tear down the shrubs they’d previously left as a security barrier.

“We’re excited to see this project happening for the neighborhood, and for the people who need a home after the fire,” Nathan Pruzaniek said as he hauled brush away from the couple’s fence line.

Inside and outside, the house was being tended to by volunteers off all ages. For many, Wendy Hill was the common denominator, whether as a family member, friend or colleague.

There were retired guys putting old skills to work.

There were women outside refurbishing kitchen cabinet doors, and tackling landscaping.

There were families, such as Living Waters Landscaping owner Sean Parker and his son, as well as Sean Parker’s wife, daughter, and even the daughter’s boyfriend.

Father-and-son team Sean and Tyler Parker of Living Waters Landscaping donated labor to the Willis Street project, working with material provided by Lassen Landscaping.

All along, what kept the volunteers going, working in triple digits, doing hard, sweaty work, was the idea that someone made homeless by the Carr Fire would soon have a place to call home again.

Soon, a couple will be the home’s newest renters. They lost their home off Rock Creek Road in the Carr Fire, escaping with their lives and only enough time to grab their wedding quilt, his guitar, a few changes of clothes, their dog and the dog’s food. They will move in Labor Day weekend, if all goes as planned and the house is ready.

There’s still a lot left to do, and volunteers continue to show up to work , but more are needed.

Steve Moravec, retired RPD, reported for duty as a volunteer.

After that, Wendy has another plan.

“When they move in, we will hold a neighborhood old-school block-party barbecue with live music, to welcome them and celebrate our volunteers,” she said. “I am so excited how far this has come from the time Sam and I got this crazy idea!”

Wendy acknowledges this “crazy idea” was a bigger project than she first imagined, but she is grateful to all the people from the community who’ve come together to create a home for one family who lost everything in the Carr Fire.

Although some work remains before the home is ready for the couple to move in Labor Day weekend, in the three weeks since the project began, a lot has been done, and many organizations have donated time and materials, including Langley Landscaping, Freestyle Landscaping, Tom Davis Painting, Gold Star Financial, Carmona’s Appliance Center, Moule’s Glass, Living Waters Landscaping, Lassen Landscaping, Tess Woodford, Walk Green Products, Golden State Carpet Service/HSS Builders, Hunt Works and Armando’s Gallery House.

In addition to Wendy, Sam, and Katie Luther, the daughter of the woman who owns the house, and Luther’s fellow church members, who did the majority of the landscape work —  the list of volunteers is much longer, and growing.

After work is complete on this old house, Wendy and Sam have already targeted a few more potential home projects with specific recipients in mind, such as a Cal Fire single dad of a 7-year-old girl who lost their home.

Wendy and Sam, whose idea started out of a need to provide housing for the Carr Fire homeless, have discovered another outcome.

“It has been therapeutic for all of us to feel like we are helping,” Wendy said. “When you look at it that way, it is cheaper than therapy and you can show it off when you are done. It has already brought our neighbors closer together; some we’d not even met before. The best way I can describe what is happening is an old-fashioned barn-raising. The community all comes together and works selflessly to get the job done, because it is the right thing to do. People want to help.”

To contact Wendy to help with the Carr Fire Downtown Housing Volunteer Project call 530-209-8146 or email her at browneyeddaisy@yahoo.com.


Doni Chamberlain

Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded A News Cafe in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke. Chamberlain holds a Bachelor's Degree in journalism from CSU, Chico. She's an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She's been featured and quoted in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, L.A. Times, Slate. Bloomberg News and on CNN, KQED and KPFA. She lives in Redding, California.

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