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Sonoma County fires deliver economic blow to house cleaners and other service workers

In the years they spent cleaning homes in Santa Rosa, Adrian and Heather Garcia became intimately familiar with the family treasures they needed to handle with care.

Baby handprints made of plaster. Bronze booties. Kids’ art projects hung on walls. Framed family photos. These are what their clients prized the most.

So Adrian Garcia’s heart sank when he returned to a hillside neighborhood the day after the Tubbs fire ravaged northern Santa Rosa. The homes once served by his company, Water2Wine Cleaning, stood in ruins.

Driving around police barricades, Garcia took cellphone photos of six still-smoldering homes and sent them to their owners. He couldn’t restore the things his customers had cherished, but he could alleviate their uncertainty about the status of their homes.

“Seeing it for the first time after the fire had gone through was heartbreaking,” Garcia said. “It was the families — I wasn’t even concerned about the business. ... I wondered, ‘Where are these people going to go? How are they going to find a place? How are they going to live?’”

The October fires destroyed more than 5,100 homes in Sonoma County, upending the lives of the families who lived in them and the workers whose jobs revolved around them.

Roughly a third of Water2Wine’s business vaporized during the Tubbs fire, including 15 clients’ homes in Fountaingrove, nine in Coffey Park and five in Larkfield.

Although the flames have long been extinguished, the disaster delivered a sharp and lingering economic blow to the people who tidied up homes, washed windows, maintained yards and cleaned pools in fire-ravaged neighborhoods. With so many homes lost in northern Santa Rosa, some business owners say they could be forced to shift their work to southern Sonoma County or Marin County.

”We’re having to market into Novato,” Garcia said. “We’re in the process of getting a license in Marin County to try to service clients that had to move down there.”

Ben Stone, executive director of the Sonoma Economic Development Board, said the widespread loss of homes and businesses is likely to have a broad economic impact affecting thousands of local residents. While many may consume fewer services, the workers who tended homes destroyed in the fires will feel the impact immediately, he said.

“Gardeners, landscapers, house cleaners, pool cleaners and painters will see a huge blow to business due to 5 percent of Santa Rosa’s housing stock burning up,” Stone said.

Advocates for low-wage earners say October’s fires are having an adverse effect on all low-income residents in the county, exacerbating a rental market that was already in crisis. Service sector employees at the lower to middle end of the wage scale will find it increasingly difficult to afford housing, said Marty Bennett, co-chair of North Bay Jobs with Justice.

“The cost of living and particularly rent is through the roof,” Bennett said. “All low- and moderate-income families are feeling the crunch.”

For Enrique and Luz Alba, owners of Luz House Cleaning, the firestorm continues to be an economic nightmare.

Like the Garcias, the couple lost a huge chunk of their clientele. They also lost their home on Sweetgum Street in the Coffey Park neighborhood, a tan-and-white four-bedroom, three-bath home with a white picket fence. Only the fence remains.

“That was our dream house,” Enrique Alba said. “With the fire, all dreams go away, into the garbage.”

Alba and his family fled the oncoming flames at 1 a.m. but he returned for some important documents at about 3 a.m. He tried to water down the house with a hose and contemplated staying to fight the fire but Luz insisted otherwise, reminding him that “you have kids,” he said.

“For me and my wife, it cost us a lot to have that house,” he said Wednesday, standing in the supply room of the family’s business on Industrial Drive. “We’ve worked so hard to have our kids in a good place and it’s gone ... in a second.”

Of the 25 homes Luz House Cleaning serviced regularly, only four remain, Alba said. Their clients in Mark West Springs and Coffey Park also lost homes.

Some of their clients have tried to refer business to them through Facebook, or they’ve requested cleanings at the homes they’re currently occupying.

But many of their clients are now scattered throughout the county, making it difficult to clean more than one or two houses at a time, Alba said. He understands and appreciates that his clients are trying to help him and his family. “I just can’t say no,” he said.

The Tubbs fire hollowed out the core of his business in Fountaingrove, Larkfield and Coffey Park. His office, which was ideally located near Coffey Park and Fountaingrove, is now a daily commute from the condo the family is renting in Rohnert Park. Alba said they simply could not find a reasonably-priced rental in Santa Rosa.

Like the Garcias, the Albas are now looking for clients in southern Sonoma and Marin counties. Alba, whose business also does landscaping, said he recently did a job in Novato and came across another yard maintenance worker who told him there’s a lot of work in Marin County. But he said he’s torn about migrating his business south.

“We don’t want to give up our clients. We want to stay in Santa Rosa,” said Alba.

The couple rent a two-bedroom condominium. Alba’s son Luis, 18, sleeps in the living room. Two other children, Brenda, 15, and Edgar, 5, share one bedroom, while Enrique and Luz share the other. They previously rented the Sweetgum Street home with an option to buy, Enrique said. Everything the family bought for the house was purchased on credit, with the intent to keep the house forever, he said.

Alba said they got those payments postponed for a couple months because of the fires, but come January the family will again start paying for household items they no longer possess.

Stone said the fires, while a blow to the low-wage service sector, will be a boon to higher-paid service professionals, including architects, civil engineers and construction and trade workers. That, in turn, will push wages up for these groups, he said.

Hotels and restaurants could also see a boost in business as the region experiences an influx of outsiders during the recovery period, he said.

“Outside construction, visiting government employees on loan, and federal disaster recovery personnel will all require hotels to stay in and will generate sizable activity for restaurants,” Stone said in an email. “Those who lost their service sector jobs will be quickly absorbed into the local economy again.”

Stone pointed out that employees who lost their jobs when the Hilton Sonoma Wine Country hotel burned down were re-employed within a few weeks because the labor market was so tight before the fires and demand for workers is high. The unemployment rate in October was 3.3 percent, almost unchanged from the pre-fire unemployment rate of 3.2 percent in September.

One of the county’s biggest goals following the firestorm is to ensure that many of the jobs created by the fire recovery process are taken by local residents so they can remain in the county, said Katie Greaves, director of the county Workforce Investment Board, which provides oversight and policy guidance for federal workforce dollars that fund the county’s JobLink placement and retraining services.

Part of that task requires retraining people who were displaced by the fires or lost their jobs as a result of the disaster. Local labor unions are directing residents to JobLink in an effort to get them trained for the construction business, Greaves said.

“We are really trying to funnel our resources through JobLink, helping individuals that have had their employment disrupted during the fire,” Greaves said. The program can help them “get back into employment, retrained with some supportive services into a different field,” she said.

Greaves said she’s just now beginning to see the “secondary effects” of the firestorms, which go far beyond the initial assessment of the businesses and homes destroyed. Some businesses, she said, are going to face a difficult decision: How do they stay in the community?

“It may have to be how do they change their business or go into a different industry,” Greaves said.

The Garcias are still trying to recover from the economic toll the fires have had on their business, which at one point had 89 clients. They’re still going up into Fountaingrove, cleaning homes surrounded by fire-scarred lots.

Adrian Garcia said Water2Wine’s first priority is to maintain enough business to keep its three remaining workers employed. They lost one worker who was forced to move away because of the fire.

“It’s not their fault we lost so much business and they still need to make a living,” Garcia said.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @renofish.