Tubbs fire’s toll reverberates in Santa Rosa, Sonoma County one year later

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Special Coverage

Read all of the PD’s fire anniversary coverage here

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.

Special Coverage

Read all of the PD’s fire anniversary coverage here

“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.

“As devastating as it was to lose the house and memories, you lose a child, that’s in my opinion worse,” she said. “The house was just a thing.”

After the Tubbs fire stormed into Fountaingrove, the flames continued westward down the hill and into the Journey’s End mobile home park, where 117 homes for low-income seniors were destroyed.

Forty-four homes in the park are still standing, but they’re uninhabitable because the infrastructure burned up around them.

Steve Morrow owns one of the 44 surviving homes. A 70-year-old Navy veteran and retired technical support engineer, he lived in Journey’s End for almost two years and was looking forward to spending the coming years relaxing with Zella, his pet Labrador.

The fires changed all that, forcing him into a fifth-wheel camper on River Road outside Santa Rosa. His current living space is 250 square feet at most, about a third the size of his mobile home.

Morrow is trying to find some place to relocate that home but his plans are still in flux.

“I feel like I’m not settled like I was in my home in Journey’s End,” Morrow said. “I don’t know what’s gonna happen.”

The disaster’s wake has weighed heavily on him. One day, he felt so despondent he didn’t want to get out of bed. And so, except for a few strolls with Zella, he didn’t.

“That was a bad day,” he said.

But the search for a new property is gives him hope. If he can get help with the financing, it just might work out.

“That’s what keeps me going, the fact that if I work hard and I’m diligent about this and use all my resources to the max, then I’ll get a piece of property and I’ll get my house on it,” he said. “I haven’t had a bad day for quite a while because that’s been in the works in my head.”

Brightest burn zone

Zane, the three-term county supervisor, won’t ever forget the first time she saw the Tubbs fire’s impact on Coffey Park.

It was the afternoon of Oct. 9, less than 24 hours after the firestorm began, and she was surveying the damage in the Sonoma County Sheriff’s helicopter with Rep. Mike Thompson.

Inside as the aircraft passed over the neighborhood — once a densely packed cluster of single-family homes on Santa Rosa’s northwestern outskirts — Zane was struck by what she saw when she looked down. Turning to Thompson, a Vietnam War veteran, Zane said “It looks like a war zone down there, Mike.”

“He looked at me and he said ‘Yeah, that’s what it looks like, but this is worse,’” Zane recounted.

The neighborhood lost 1,473 homes after the firestorm jumped six lanes of Highway 101. Aerial images of Coffey Park became a jarring symbol of the fires’ devastation for all the world to see.

Now, the neighborhood is the brightest spot in Sonoma County’s rebuilding effort.

Twenty-one homes have been completed and 520 are under construction, according to city data. Another 101 properties have been issued building permits and 145 are seeking permits.

It hasn’t been a smooth road for everyone.

Ben Hernandez and his wife are planning to rebuild. They liked living in Coffey Park, with its friendly neighbors and convenient location not far from his mother in south Santa Rosa. But it’s taken him much longer than he expected to get a building permit from the city.

Hernandez, who works for a Sebastopol-based construction and maintenance company, said he drives to the property off Hopper Avenue two or three times a week and parks there.

“It’s hard seeing all the houses going up and nothing’s happening,” said Hernandez, 45. “I kind of lose hope, I don’t know ... I’m gonna try to hang in there.”

After the Tubbs fire burned their home and everything inside — wedding photos, baby pictures and a cache of 49ers and San Francisco Giants memorabilia — Hernandez, his wife and their two children had a series of short-term motel stays in Napa, Sebastopol and Santa Rosa covered by their insurance company.

Ultimately, the family settled into a three-bedroom home in Rohnert Park. The monthly rent there is about $1,000 more than the mortgage payments on their Coffey Park house. Their insurer is paying the bill — for now.

Hernandez hopes that will last for another year. But with their construction in Coffey Park yet to get underway, he’s not sure what will happen if that next year comes and goes and his family faces having to make mortgage and rent payments at the same time.

“I guess we’ll be living in our car,” he said.

Life’s work gone

Even before the Tubbs fire roared into Santa Rosa, it began laying waste to the greater Mark West Springs and Larkfield-Wikiup area, a vast unincorporated community north of the city that stretches east into the foothills of the Mayacamas Mountains.

The largest single group of homes, 1,729, burned down there, and the pace of rebuilding is playing out in a mix of daily gains and setbacks for homeowners.

The Larkfield lowlands around Old Redwood Highway are filled with construction activity. But higher up along Mark West Springs Road, progress is moving slower.

Fire survivors who lost a home or business there, as in the other fire-impacted communities in the county, continue to grapple with whether to rebuild and how, what they can replace and what they can’t. One of them is Scott Bartley, a former Santa Rosa mayor whose architecture firm stood on Old Redwood Highway for decades.

When the fire destroyed his office, it took 35 years of original drawings along with it.

“The fire probably burned really well, because there was a whole lot of paper in that building,” Bartley said, sounding a sardonic note.

Many of his firm’s drawings are backed up digitally, but some of the most recent were not. Shortly before the fires, the firm began transitioning to new computers that no longer communicated with the backup drive. And like everything else in the building, those computers were lost.

Bartley estimates his employees spent up to a third of their time focusing on fire-related impacts to the business through the end of last year. They’re still in a temporary office in downtown Santa Rosa, hoping to move into a new office in November, just after the insurance payments are set to run out.

Future in limbo

Uncertainty about the future abounds across Sonoma County’s burn zones, even for the most well-off and driven fire survivors.

Coffey, the local Kaiser chief, is still unsure whether she will rebuild her home in Fountaingrove.

On a return trip to the property a few weeks ago, she noticed something unusual — and perhaps fortuitous.

In what used to be her backyard, Coffey had planted five naked lady flower bulbs several years ago. They had never shown much, but on the recent trip she was surprised to see them all in full bloom.

“Maybe that’s a sign,” Coffey said. “Maybe it’s just telling us, ‘OK, it’s gonna be OK. You can rebuild. It’s just trying to figure out dollars and cents.’ ”

The project may not pencil out for Coffey and her husband, but with Santa Rosa poised to soon lift their neighborhood’s water restrictions, which stemmed from a pollution problem tied to the fires, they’re seriously exploring the option.

About one thing, Coffey is certain: She does not want her family to be alone if and when they return to Crown Hill Drive.

“Do I want to be the first on the hill rebuilt? Probably not,” Coffey said. “I wish I knew other people were gonna be rebuilding up there. ... We’re gonna have to wait and see.”

You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or jd.morris@pressdemocrat.com.

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