Tubbs fire’s toll reverberates in Santa Rosa, Sonoma County one year later
FOUNTAINGROVE - One year ago, Crown Hill Drive was filled with green trees, green bushes and green lawns surrounding upscale homes lining a picturesque road curving through Santa Rosa's northeastern hills.
Today, the lots along this street are brown and barren, much of the remaining vegetation charred, the premises otherwise nearly devoid of life.
A ferocious wildfire destroyed most homes here, along with nearly 1,600 others in the greater Fountaingrove area. The sounds of construction resound on nearby streets and birdsong occasionally rings through the area. Otherwise, silence prevails.
“There's nobody around there,” said Judy Coffey, whose Crown Hill Drive home of 13 years burned down last year in the Tubbs fire. “It just looks desolate.”
Inside Santa Rosa, Fountaingrove absorbed the heaviest blow in the historic wind-driven inferno, which consumed an acre of ground - roughly one football field - per minute as it made its deadly 12-mile run from Calistoga to Santa Rosa late Oct. 8 and early Oct. 9.
Today, this neighborhood is beset by challenges that have slowed its recovery, which lags far behind Coffey Park, where fewer homes were lost but hundreds more are underway. In greater Fountaingrove, construction has begun on just 170 lots.
Hilly, uneven acreage, high construction costs, complications with debris cleanup and a partially contaminated water system are all to blame.
The dearth of rebuilt homes in Fountaingrove is just one illustration of the still unfolding fallout from last year's wildfires as the anniversary of the historic disaster approaches.
“The way that grief and trauma works over time, people are feeling it perhaps a lot more now than they did in the first couple of months when they were in shock,” said Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who represents Fountaingrove. “I think the long, tedious, challenging road to rebuilding and recovery is a harsh reality right now for so many people.”
California has endured several other significant wildfires since the smoke cleared in Sonoma County last year. They include the two largest conflagrations in state history - the Ranch fire near Clear Lake and the Thomas fire in Southern California - as well as the deadly Carr fire, which destroyed more than 1,000 homes in the Redding area this summer.
Yet the scale of devastation wrought by the 2017 fire siege in Sonoma County remains in a league of its own. More than 5,300 homes were destroyed in the county, most by the Tubbs fire. It remains by far the most destructive wildfire on record in California.
“We have never really seen a fire in the wildlands move with such intensity that it actually could penetrate an urban neighborhood like it did,” said Scott Stephens, a UC Berkeley fire science professor. “This has happened in Southern California for decades. They've had fires down there that have hit neighborhoods and actually done real damage. But in Northern California, we just haven't seen it.”
As wildfires continue to ravage the state, Sonoma County and its largest city are still reeling from the devastation last fall.
Of the 23 Santa Rosa homes rebuilt since the firestorm, only two are located in Fountaingrove, according to data from the city. On Crown Hill Drive, the slow progress is evident. Most of the burned lots there are vacant.
City data indicates three properties have moved into the construction phase - though little visible progress - and the owners of a handful are seeking building permits or recently received them.
“Fountaingrove just isn't going anywhere,” said Coffey, 69, one of the region's top health care executives as manager for Kaiser Permanente's operations in Marin and Sonoma counties.
She lost almost everything she owns last October.
She and her husband, Harry, had no warning - no time to gather their belongings, and barely enough time to pick up their 83-year-old neighbor, who could not escape her motorized garage because the electricity was out.
“We took the clothes on our backs, a purse and a wallet,” Coffey said. “That was it. That's all we had.”
Coffey has had some luck in discussions with her insurance company.
At about 7:30 p.m. Oct. 8, two hours before the Tubbs fire broke out, she finished decorating her house for Halloween. To take stock of her “fabulous” display, she snapped photos of her home's entire interior, which helped when she had to itemize what she lost.
But some things she can never get back.
Two of Coffey's children died when they were young, one due to an infection at 4 weeks old and another at age 17 because of a congenital heart condition. The fire burned all the mementos she and her husband have from those years.