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California and the West

A Homecoming in Rio Nido

Weather: Some residents evacuated Feb. 8 because of mudslide threat return. But 45 homes are still believed to be endangered.


RIO NIDO, Calif. — An elated Judy and Bert Boyce came home Wednesday, two months after the threat of mudslides forced them to flee the Russian River community that has been their family's home for three generations.

"It doesn't look too bad," Bert said softly as the couple surveyed their living room for the first time since their evacuation. "No, but it smells," Judy said, sniffing the musty air cautiously.

Together, they drifted from room to room, touching familiar objects, fretting over the dead African violet and the water damage to the living room ceiling, inspecting the empty refrigerator, planning a trip to the supermarket to restock it.

"I haven't let myself get excited until now, because I was afraid they might cancel on us," Judy Boyce said. "But now, I'm emotional. I'm just so glad to be here. We are one of the lucky ones."

The lucky and the unlucky gathered Wednesday morning at Rio Nido's fire station with the emergency workers so many residents have come to know on a first-name basis. Residents of 145 homes in this Northern California community were evacuated Feb. 8, after a mudslide in the Upper Canyon Three area destroyed three homes and state geologists warned that a second, more massive slide was imminent.

That slide never came, although geologists still say it could happen at any moment. In late March, Sonoma County officials determined that only 45 homes were in the direct path of the anticipated mudslide. Those homes, fenced off and guarded by sheriff's deputies, are expected to be condemned soon.

But county officials told residents of the other 100 evacuated homes they could move back. The first were escorted in at 9 a.m. Wednesday, after signing forms saying they are aware that they may be putting themselves at risk.

Watching the bustling crowd in the fire station, Gary LaCombe counted himself among the unlucky. "I'm just here to support my neighbors," he said. "I feel very good for these people."

The February slide pushed four feet of mud and debris through LaCombe's Upper Canyon Three house, knocking it off its foundation and burying his three cars in the dead of night. LaCombe says he counts himself lucky to be alive. But the last two months have been hellish.

"My wife and I spent a month on our son's futon in Sebastopol," LaCombe said. "Now we're renting a tiny cabin. We're just trying to figure out what our next move is going to be, how to put our lives back together."

At night, LaCombe said, he sometimes wakes up in a cold sweat, sure he's heard the popping, cracking sounds that filled the air the night of the slide as the moving mud uprooted redwood trees that towered more than 100 feet above the earth and sent them hurtling onto his property.

"My wife and I are both on antidepressants," LaCombe said. "I lost my job. I didn't have mortgage insurance, and I don't know when or where we can rebuild."

Still, he is determined to stay in this river community, where he bought his home 11 years ago. "Everybody knows you here. I wouldn't leave this area for love nor money."

Up the road from the fire station, unfazed by pink signs posted on redwood trunks cautioning that the area is still hazardous, Terry Finigan exulted at reclaiming his home.

"There's a little bit of mold in my bathroom, but that was there before," he said. "Call me the eternal optimist, but I think this will end up being good for Rio Nido."

A summer resort town and playground for wealthy San Franciscans decades ago, Rio Nido long ago became a ramshackle enclave, Finigan said. He bought a house there five years ago because it was affordable and he loved how the homes nestled in a redwood forest. But he said he never liked the bikers and others who seemed to gravitate to the Upper Canyon Three area up the street, where absentee landlords rented out shacks and asked few questions.

"Now those homes will not be reoccupied and hopefully, those people will not return," Finigan said. "The good thing about this disaster is that people have gotten to know each other. We've gotten to know our neighbors."

Up the street from Finigan, John Obertelli aired out his home, where furniture and redwood paneling were encrusted with mold, and waited for PG&E to turn on the electricity.

"I'm so glad to be back in my house. I just love it!" Obertelli said.

Like many residents here, Obertelli insisted that county officials overreacted when they forced so many to leave for so long.

"My wife and I have been living like nomads," the commercial fisherman said. "I hadn't lived in a rental since 1972, and it was upsetting to have to do that. I felt like we weren't getting the straight scoop from anybody.

"We told the supervisors last Tuesday we were coming back in today, no matter what. Enough is enough."

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