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KQED broadcast reveals long road ahead in Sonoma County fire recovery

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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

The long haul ahead in Sonoma County’s recovery from devastating October wildfires that destroyed thousands of homes and displaced thousands more people took center stage Friday at Luther Burbank Center for the Arts.

A two-hour segment of KQED Radio’s “Forum,” broadcast live from the Santa Rosa events center, focused on the state of affairs six months after the firestorm swept through the region.

The single clearest message was: We aren’t out of the woods, or anywhere close.

From an overwhelming housing shortage to individual financial struggles, from excruciating paperwork to unpredictable emotional triggers, the personal and collective impacts of the wildfires remain formidable and severe, a panel of local speakers said.

“The hill that people are climbing is steep,” Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey said.

One speaker, Jeff Okrepkie of Coffey Park, said he and his neighbors have discovered that dealing with insurance claims and learning about rebuilding options, construction needs and related issues is a lot like having a second job — often, an unpleasant one.

Most from that neighborhood, where more than 1,300 homes were destroyed, want to rebuild, Okrepkie said, but they’re still fighting with insurers to find out if they can.

“It’s interesting that you have to argue what the meaning of ‘replacement cost’ is,” he said.

Chris Keys detailed his family’s struggle to cope with losing their dream home in Hidden Valley Estates and particularly, the challenges facing his 5-year-old autistic son, who lost the two cats he might otherwise look to for comfort and relief after the disruptions of the fire.

About 800 people attended the broadcast, a free opportunity to see behind the scenes of the popular current events program. Moderated by Forum’s Friday host Mina Kim, a Napa resident, it was one of several installments of “Forum on the Road” planned around the Bay Area to celebrate full-time host Michael Krasny’s 25th anniversary with the program.

The audience showed up to hear about the progress made since the fires in Sonoma County killed 24 people, torched 137 square miles and destroyed nearly 5,300 homes.

One of Kim’s guests was 15-year-old Dayren Torres, whose family has been divided between two recreational vehicles provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency since the fire destroyed their two-story rental home. Torres lives in one with her sister, while her parents and another sister occupy the other.

They have no renter’s insurance and will lose their claim to the FEMA RVs next April. Where they’ll end up is unclear, Torres said. So far, they’ve been unable to find a suitable affordable home.

Another panelist, Ann DuBay, said she and her husband were fortunate to have increased the insurance coverage for their home above Mark West Springs Road days before the fires hit. But she said each time she tries to add to her inventory of items lost in the fire, as her insurance company requires, “it creates a new emotion.”

Coursey and 1st District Sonoma County Supervisor Susan Gorin said both city and county governments are working hard to streamline the permitting for rebuilding. But the sheer size of the calamity means rebuilding, in Coursey’s words, “is not going to be fast enough.”

Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

About 3,000 homes were destroyed in Santa Rosa, but only about 181 building permits have been insured or are in process for reasons “as varied as the stories that people have who lost their homes on the night of October 8th and 9th,” he said.

In the county, many also lost wells, septic tanks and other infrastructure, such as private bridges, about 70 of which were destroyed, complicating cleanup and replacement of burned houses.

Omar Medina, coordinator of the UndocuFund for Fire Relief in Sonoma County, said the nonprofit has distributed more than $3.7 million in direct assistance to about 5,700 undocumented individuals so far. But the maximum grant is $3,000, and it’s getting harder to refer people who still need substantial help but who, because of their immigration status, are ineligible for emergency aid from FEMA and other programs. Many people who worked paycheck to paycheck, earning their living cleaning homes or landscaping, have lost income because of the property losses.

“The need is going to be one that’s going to last a long time,” Medina said. “I think for many people things are still going to be getting worse as they still don’t find jobs, they still struggle, borrowing money, whatever they can, just to survive. But the need is there.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.