At approximately 9:45 p.m. on October 8, a wildfire started off Highway 128 and Bennett Lane in Calistoga, which authorities named the Tubbs Fire. Fifteen minutes later, CAL FIRE received reports of a second wildfire off Highway 12 north of Glen Ellen, nearly 25 miles away from the Tubbs Fire. Authorities named this the Nuns Fire. By 3 a.m., a third wildfire sparked off Pocket Ranch Road and Ridge Ranch Road in Geyserville. This was named the Pocket Fire. Over the course of three weeks, the fires killed 42 people and burned a total of 110,720 acres, displacing more than 100,000 residents and destroying 8,400 homes.
Causes for the fires are still under investigation, but the speed of the devastation is attributed to two major factors: that night, winds blew in excess of 70 miles per hour, pushing the flames faster than emergency crews could contain them; second, an unnaturally wet spring grew large amounts of brush and grass. Dry conditions after the rains turned the grass into tinder, susceptible to flames.
For many families fleeing the blaze, their return home will only be met with ash and smoke, a lifetime of memories and possessions reduced to a pile of debris on an empty lot. Governor Jerry Brown declared the wildfires a state of emergency, and President Donald Trump authorized the activation of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to assist and organize cleanup and financial support. Emergency services from across the country—even a fire brigade from Australia—banded together to combat the conflagration and protect the vulnerable families. With the worst of the destruction contained by heroic fire crews, eyes have started to turn on recovery. In the wake of the worst fire in the state’s history, how will the North Bay help its neighbors recover and rebuild?
County and federal assessments estimate 8,400 homes were burned in Napa and Sonoma Counties, displacing more than 100,000 people. To estimate damages and potential rebuilding costs, the Sonoma County board of supervisors extrapolated data from last year’s Valley fire in Lake County. According to Santa Rosa city councilmember Chris Rodgers, the current cost of all the lost buildings in Sonoma County totals $3 billion. At an estimated cost of $100,000 per lot, debris cleanup will cost the county $500 million.
A more immediate concern is the task of housing displaced residents who have nowhere else to turn. FEMA released a list of hotels offering special rates to displaced residents. Costs were lowered to $7 per night at these hotels, with FEMA making up the difference in federal aid.
Airbnb, a San Francisco-based company that curates a community of private homeowners who list their properties for short-term rentals for travelers, activated its Disaster Response Program. “Through our program, people in need of temporary accommodations—including survivors displaced, emergency relief workers and volunteers—are able to connect with Airbnb hosts in San Francisco and parts of Marin, Mendocino, Alameda, Sonoma and Contra Costa Counties who are opening their homes free of charge,” says Kellie Bentz, Airbnb’s head of global disaster response and relief. From October 9 through 30, more than 900 homeowners in the North Bay offered free places to stay.
Some citizens took matters into their own hands. Glen Ghilotti, founder and president of Team Ghilotti, used his experience in construction and a five-acre plot of land to help house friends who fled their homes. “We took that parcel of land, laid down some all-weather foundation and dug sewer trenches. We hooked up water connections and built temporary homes for six families,” he said, during a meeting hosted by the Northern California Builders Exchange arranged to discuss possible solutions for rebuilding and recovery. “We need more people willing to do this kind of work and quickly. Housing our friends and families should be priority No. 1.”
John Bly, executive vice president of the Northern California Engineering Contractors Association [NCECA] added, “What this county needs right now are doers who don’t care about the consequences of doing. Don’t ask for permission, just get it done.”
The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors took action by imposing a moratorium on new vacation rental permits in the county on October 25. The moratorium would last 45 days, with options to extend the duration for up to two years. In addition to the measure, the supervisors authorized seasonal farmworker housing be made available for 365 days out of the year, instead of the code maximum of 180 days. Travel trailers, RVs and other temporary housing vehicles are also allowed for residential use for 45 days, provided there are adequate septic facilities to accommodate residents.
“We will remain united in our efforts to build more housing, streamline services and protect public health,” says supervisor chairperson Shirlee Zane. “We will work alongside our community for as long as it takes.”
With an increase in outside attention and aid comes an increase in non-local workers. To restore power, the board of supervisors waived the bidding process for brush cleanup near downed power lines and hired crews as quickly as possible to provide access to impacted sites for PG&E. Electricians and utility workers all over the state worked 24/7, testing gas lines for pressure and restoring electricity. Living conditions for those workers were Spartan, to say the least: cramped, barracks-style bunk beds with just enough room for one adult man to sleep in; and mobile fleets of Scottish showers and port-o-potties the only relief for people who’ve been working around the clock for nearly three weeks.
Once PG&E determined its nonlocal workers didn’t need to stay, they were sent home. However, when it comes to debris removal and eventual rebuilding, the job will take much longer than three weeks, which means finding a place to stay for the workers coming in to get the job done. “For housing, we’re looking at three categories,” says Bly. “Displaced homeowners; temporary workers tasked with debris removal; and nonlocal contractors who need housing during rebuilding.”
The solutions vary by group. For homeowners, temp housing may be necessary for as long as three years as houses need to be erected from nothing. FEMA-issued disaster tents, RVs, trailers and prefabricated temporary buildings assembled onsite will be needed for these two groups. “The last group is the trickiest,” says Bly. “It all depends on how long these workers need to stay in the area—three years? Five? Fifteen? It all depends on what they’re rebuilding.” Bly adds a solution for those workers may be a long-term version of the previous options, but pad by the construction companies during their stay.
As reentry and hazard assessment begins, local, state and federal resources are releasing resources at a dizzying pace. Unfortunately, the process is arduous and complex, and residents are confused about their rights when it comes time to commit to either a government-sponsored contractor, the Army Corps of Engineers or a local private contractor. But everything starts with a right of entry form.
The right of entry form is a record of the homeowner opting into the government-sponsored Cal OES/FEMA Sonoma County Complex Fire Debris Removal Program. It is an optional document; homeowners interested in hiring private contractors do not need to sign a right of entry permit. Signing the form authorizes the government to begin debris assessment and cleanup at no cost to the homeowner. Fees associated with the project will be negotiated between the government and insurance companies. If the insurance policy includes debris removal coverage, the permit requires those funds go toward the cost of the program. Personally removing debris may disqualify homeowners from the program.
The program will start removing debris near “houses that post a public health concern,” which includes houses near schools, hospitals and watersheds. After those sites are cleared, crews will begin identifying homes authorized for cleanup, and will focus on removing debris as effectively as possible. It will largely be a house-to-house operation, with priority on groups of houses that have opted into the program.
Something homeowners should not do is attempt to move the debris themselves. Not only would that jeopardize any potential assistance from the government-sponsored relief and cleanup programs, the debris itself is an environmental hazard best left to professionals to safely remove. And where would they take waste? As of late October, the county has yet to identify a landfill with the right qualifications to handle fire debris.
Regardless of the choice to employ local contractors or opt into the government program, nobody can begin debris removal until hazardous wastes have been assessed and removed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Dustin Davis, owner of Daniel O. Davis, Inc. in Santa Rosa, has experience working with the EPA when it comes to hazard removal. “Right now, there are hazardous substances both in the air and inside the burned areas,” he says. “The EPA will need to take ash samples and run lab tests to determine what they’re dealing with. We’re talking Freon, propane, benzene, asbestos and a dozen different chemicals and carcinogens. That doesn’t cover CRT monitors, laptop batteries and other electronics. If a vehicle burned in the fire, all the fluids need to be drained and the batteries disconnected and extracted before crews can haul the frames away.”
Time estimates for how long the cleanup will take vary from source to source, but two in particular stand out: FEMA Regional Administrator Robert Fenton Jr. pledged to have government crews finished with debris cleanup “by early 2018”; and NCECA’s Bly predicted a total cleanup could take as long as nine months. “The timeline seems ambitious given the vagaries of our weather,” says Bly. “At 6,000 sites in Sonoma county, to start on November 15 and end on January 31 next year, that’s 79 sites per day—every day. Judging from Lake County experience, you would need about 80 crews of five workers in each crew to be done by January 31. It’s possible, but that doesn’t allow for any weather days, no holidays or any other delays. I would think a more realistic timeline would be by the end of March 2018. That is still kind of ‘early 2018’.”
But why does it matter who does the work as long as the job gets done? Chris Snyder, assistant political director and district representative at the International Union of Operating Engineers has experience working with FEMA when federal aid came to Lake County after the Valley fire. “There are still people today in Lake County waiting for financial assistance from FEMA,” he says. “Because when you work with federal government officials, any request or change has to go up a very long chain of command. Money goes into FEMA, then it travels down from there to get to you.”
The Army Corps of Engineers was activated because FEMA alone couldn’t handle the scale of the cleanup project, adds Snyder. “That’s another entity you’ll have to work with,” he says. With so many organizations involved in the same project, communication will feel less fluid, and more like talking through tin cans with string on the end—each new agency adds a line to that chain, and even simple requests can get lost in translation.
“There are no bad guys here,” says Bly. “FEMA and the Army Corps are here to help. But if we look at that $500 million price tag for cleanup, I would prefer keeping as much as that money in local industry, rather than having it go to out of state contractors or federal pockets.” Bly is concerned with an outside agency or contractor at the helm, the job may not be done to the highest standards. “Crews are going to be working quickly to get through lot after lot, and that could be a price left at the homeowner’s feet. If we have licensed, certified and eager crews from local businesses ready to go, we should take advantage of that. At the very least, they won’t move away when the job’s done; they can be held accountable.”
The private option isn’t perfect, however. “It’s unfortunate to think of people preying on the needy, but there will be people—both local and from out of state—who will tempt homeowners with a lower offer, only to disappear as soon as they take as much money from you as possible,” says Bly. He recommends homeowners to check licenses and ensure they are up to date and appropriate for hazard and debris removal. Union employees should provide proof of their chapter affiliation.
But it’s not only about money. “At the end of the day, the contractors here have also been affected by the fire,” says Snyder. “In Lake County, the community supported the locals because they were sympathetic. This isn’t just a job for us; it’s our community involvement. We’ve been holding HAZMAT classes to make sure crews have the appropriate licenses for the job. When you go local, you’re giving work to your neighbor, and that could mean the difference between covering your foundation for the rain and tearing it out completely.”
As aid pours in across the country for fire victims, it’s easy to forget the many services and businesses indirectly impacted by a loss of business due to the fire. Small, family-owned businesses reliant on consistent day-to-day sales may find a sharp decline in interest for specialty or artisan goods as funds go to general relief efforts. David Gambill, proprietor of Sonoma Chocolatiers in Sebastopol, is in this group. While his business has received critical acclaim for its luxurious chocolate and teas, business has all but dried up. Supporting his wife, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, Gambill couldn’t’ make rent, pay for ingredients or even fix the air conditioner in the kitchen that broke a week before the fire. With his production capability seized, he couldn’t fulfill wholesale orders. Gambill laid down his expenses and set up a gofundme page to help make it through to November. “The impact on local businesses is less obvious but has already begun, and could be just as devastating,” he writes. By November, Gambill had met his $7,500 goal.
The tourism and hospitality industry suffered a major blow from the fires. It would be nearly impossible to calculate the lost revenue from canceled events alone, but one of the most impactful causes for slower tourism traffic into the county still persists: media coverage.
As people around the world look at the videos and photos of devastation around the county, it paints a bleak image unattractive to potential vacations. Hotel cancellations cost hundreds of thousands of dollars for proprietors and franchise managers, as the tourism boards for both counties will have to work incredibly hard to pierce through the negatives and charm visitors back to Wine Country.
A community has a responsibility to look out for members in need. “The majority of the people who died in the fire were seniors,” says supervisor Zane. “As we rebuild, I beg you to reach out to that community—love them; show them you’re here.”
In Fountaingrove, Oakmont at Varena Hills luxury community center suffered damage to its northern side of the campus. Despite the area’s proximity to completely destroyed areas around Fountaingrove, the center is expected to open by late November.
Its sister location at Villa Capri wasn’t as lucky. The property neighboring Varena Hills has been destroyed. The organization’s website stated rebuilding the area could take as long as 18 months. In the meantime, families have been connected with their residents and temporary housing has been found. Gofundme charities have been opened to benefit both the residents and staff members who lost their homes in the destruction.
Students are another vulnerable demographic. The majority of students in Sonoma County are young adults either working full-time to pay for tuition or living with debt to get through. Many students rent houses, and both the Santa Rosa Junior college and Sonoma State University are places attractive to international and out of state students.
According to Katie Beermann, an interim public information officer for SSU, a survey conducted after the fire revealed out of nearly 1000 students and faculty members surveyed, 25 faculty members and 43 students were left without homes. “Additional outreach is ongoing with those who have confirmed losses of their residences to find out how we can provide accommodations and aid as appropriate,” she says.
In response, the school created Noma Cares, a fundraising function of the college created to gather financial resources and provide assistance to the disenfranchised and displaced. Noma Cares also functions as a social hub, where interested students can offer transportation, housing and direct assistance to victims. To date, Noma Cares has raised $50,000.
“Our top priority during these fires has been and continues to be the safety and well-being of more than 9,200 students and our employees,” says Beermann. “They are at the heart of all our decision-making. We are doing all we can to contact any student, faculty, or staff member who was impacted and working one-on-one with them to address and accommodate their needs. The outpouring of support we have seen for efforts such as Noma Needs, Noma Gives, and overall volunteerism has been incredibly powerful to witness, and we are forever grateful. These expressions of kindness and empathy are a testament to the fact that we are members of an educational community committed to academic excellence, service, unity and perseverance. “
In Santa Rosa, SRJC president Frank Chong has pledged an incredible amount of resources to aid the student community. Nearly 500 students lost their homes in the fire, as well as 61 faculty and staff members. By early October, the SRJC Fire Relief Fund has raised more than $400,000, including a $50,000 donation from Exchange Bank.
“The SRJC Fire Relief Fund currently provides $500 grants to students and employees who have lost their homes to help them replace books, computers, bikes and other essentials,” says Chong. “Additional non-cash donations and free services to support our college community so they can finish the semester include healing events, food and psychological services, therapy dogs and massages, food, clothing, and laptop loaners.”
One of the biggest concerns on the junior college’s mind is discouraged students. “We’ve had 120 students drop out of the school because they were afraid they couldn’t afford to come back,” says Chong. “We’re working with all of them on a case-by-case basis to make sure they have an opportunity to return.”
As early as the first days of the fire, volunteer shelters reported an avalanche of donations. Places were unable to turnover emergency supplies quick enough to reduce the flow of donations offered by a community banding together to provide whatever it could spare. The sheriff’s office released a notice saying it had been overwhelmed with calls to help at the dispatch center, and law enforcement personnel across the county had to redirect well-meaning residents trying to lend a hand at the front lines.
On October 21, Boy Scout troop 32 repurposed its annual pancake breakfast to show support and appreciation for who scoutmaster Ray Leonard calls “fire responders—law enforcement, emergency services and firefighters—anyone who put themselves at risk to protect us from this fire.” Called “A Thousand Thanks Pancake Breakfast”, the scouts made a banner with the goal of putting 1,000 signatures on it to give to CAL Fire. “We wanted to give them 1,000 signatures,” says Leonard. “But it looks like we’ll be able to give them close to 2,000. I’m very proud of our scouts and the community for showing their support.
Representatives from Redwood Credit Union accepted donations to contribute to the North Bay Fire Relief Fund. “Redwood Credit Union supported fire relief efforts in Lake County in 2015 and 2016, so we already had the systems in place to collect donations for local disaster relief efforts,” says Brett Martinez, president & CEO of Redwood Credit Union. “Just hours after the North Bay fires started, people in the community were already asking if RCU would be accepting donations as we had in the past for the Lake County fires.”
They absolutely accepted donations. Within 48 hours of the fire, the North Bay Fire Relief Fund was established, partnered with Senator Mike McGuire and The Press Democrat. By three weeks, the fund raised more than $13 million. Donors have the option to designate which county they want their money to go to: Sonoma, Napa or Mendocino county. If no county is chosen, the donation is split equally to the three counties. One hundred percent of all donations go to agencies to distribute to families in need, schools and other critical services.
“RCU’s North Bay Fire Relief fund is focused on assisting with the immediate needs of those affected, but we will continue to work with other community partners to support longer-term recovery needs—many of which have not even been identified yet,” says Martinez. “We care deeply about our community, and know it’s going to be a long road—we’re here to help.”
Darius Anderson, founder of Kenwood Investments and principal of Sonoma Media Investments, pulled out all the stops. Partnering with John Lasseter, Michael Mondavi, David Rabbit, Henry Hansel, Gary Hartwick and several others, the group founded Rebuild North Bay, a 501c4 nonprofit entity designed to assemble prominent movers and shakers in all industries in the North Bay to work together during rebuilding efforts. An announcement from Anderson on the creation of Rebuild North Bay stated, “Given the amount of devastation in the North Bay, it is imperative that these recovery efforts start now and the organization has recruited a number of prominent community leaders that are willing to advocate for the necessary resources that the region needs now and into the future.”
Spearheading the organization of this group is former FEMA maverick James Lee Wick. Appointed head of the organization during the Clinton presidency, Wick cut his teeth turning FEMA from the laughingstock of the political world (at the time, positions at FEMA were made by political appointment; politicians would use these positions as leverage to gain favor with political groups) to its current state as a valuable asset in federal disaster recovery. Under his leadership, Rebuild North Bay has everything it needs to give recovery efforts an economic shot in the arm.
Air quality is closely monitored, regardless of natural disasters. Medical studies by both private and government agencies find a direct link between the quality of life and the quality of the air. Sonoma County has an entire agency focused on monitoring and creating policy to preserve the area’s air—the Northern Sonoma County Air Pollution Control District (NSCAPCD)
A direct result of the fires is the dispersal of hazardous substances into the air. During the early days of the fire, the sky was tinged orange and ash rained down as far south as San Francisco. Every breath carried the risk of ash inhalation. With the fires controlled, air quality has improved, but is still below normal standards. One of the most important things to do when repopulating a building is to check and clean filters around air conditioning units. Debris caught in the filters could work their way through the cooling system without proper cleaning.
Even though surgical and painters masks are commonly available, these products do not offer enough protection against post-fire hazards. Look for masks graded N95 or higher, usually available through Amazon or laboratory equipment stores.
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