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