Social-distance housewarming party for 86-year-old fire survivor allowed back home

Bev Nystrom of Santa Rosa always had a squeaky gate in front of her house, but she didn't mind.

"My husband and I loved people coming in and out, and that way we could hear them," said Nystrom, 86, a survivor of the Tubbs Fire of 2017.

That scorched wrought-iron gate was unveiled Thursday on her new house, rebuilt almost three years later in Larkfield Estates. 

"She climbed mountains to get here, overcame so many obstacles, so many hurdles," said friend Marlene Fink, one of many people who dropped by to congratulate Nystrom on her move in. 

Given the pandemic, the celebration was less a party than a drive-by, with cars honking and people waving signs and shouting congratulations. 

Nystrom approached each one and chatted, blowing kisses and holding her arms wide in a mock hug. 

"So happy you're home," said a neighbor who walked over with a plate of cookies. 

A total of 1,700 homes were lost in Larkfield when the firestorm blew into Santa Rosa from Napa County. 

"There's been a lot of grief, a lot of loss, but we've dealt with it together and we've gotten through it together," said Nystrom's daughter-in-law Nikki Nystrom. 

Bev Nystrom was often quizzed about why, at her age, she would want to rebuild, especially when insurance obstacles seemed insurmountable.  

But she never wavered from returning to Chelsea Court.  

Receiving her certificate of occupancy this week was a triumph. 

"I'm overjoyed, I'm overwhelmed and I'm very grateful," Nystrom told KTVU. 

"We chose this neighborhood when we moved here in 1969."

Bev and her late husband Bud raised their family in Larkfield,and she cared for him in their home until his death from Parkinson's disease in 2013. 

As a widow, she was planning to remodel to incorporate her daughter's family into the household, but then the fire hit.

"Nobody really plans for this to happen," said daughter Kirsten Carpenter, "and we all have homeowners insurance but do we really know what's going to happen if we lose everything?"

As it turned out, Bev's home was paid-off but under-insured so her coverage for the contents had to be applied to construction costs. 

And she battled her insurance company because her rebuild was delayed by a medical crisis.      

"She was diagnosed with cancer four days before the fire, and had to have surgery, hospitalization, and treatment all while she was displaced from her home," said daughter-in-law Nikki. 

"So there was a lot going on for her in addition to the fire." 

Those advising survivors say it takes deep resilience to persist as Nystrom did, especially in Sonoma County, battered by consecutive emergencies in recent years.  

"Two major fires, floods and now the coronavirus," said Ronit Rubinoff, Executive Director of Legal Aid of Sonoma County.

"Here is a survivor of a disaster and she gets her certificate of occupancy right in the middle of a worldwide pandemic."

Nystrom says her lowest point was the emotional toll of dealing with State Farm, after being a policy holder for more than 60 years. 

The company cut-off her living expenses, refused to grant extensions because of her illness, and required exhaustive documentation of her losses. 

"I felt like my loyalty had been violated by them, like they didn't trust me," says Nystrom. 

Her family and community helped get her through the journey she describes as a roller coaster. 

"When I've gone up to the top and down to the bottom there's always been someone there to catch me."   

Now she has a lot of catching up to do, with the neighborhood children who call her Mimi.

And in her expanded new home, she has four grandsons under one roof, so she's unlikely to be lonely. 

The sturdy gate that was pulled from the ashes still squeaks.

Nystrom hopes it will get a lot of use with visitors, once the pandemic eases. 

"All the people who carried me through after I came down that roller coaster," she smiles.

"They loved me and cared for me and isn't love all of it ?"