SANTA ROSA— Coffey Park was built on city streets, not forested country lanes.
The Santa Rosa neighborhood was a planned development laid out on a typical grid with sidewalks and landscaped yards. The fire hazard zone shown on city and state maps was to the north and east, on the other side of the 101 Freeway.
Yet when the Tubbs fire swept down the mountain, Coffey Park proved defenseless in its path. In a matter of hours, the neighborhood was almost totally consumed, leaving hundreds of houses burned to the ground and residents in disbelief.
“We live in a subdivision in the middle of freaking Santa Rosa,” said Anna Brooner, whose house still stands on the side of Randon Way that didn’t burn, facing a scene of rubble and ash oddly punctuated by street trees that still have leaves and a plastic recycling bin that didn’t melt.
“I could see living on the outskirts of the mountains, you always have the potential of fire,” Brooner said. “But you would never expect it in a subdivision of this size.”
Surprising as it was to residents, the destruction of Coffey Park wasn’t a mystery to fire scientists. They view it as a rare, but predictable, event that has exposed flaws in the way fire risk is measured and mitigated in California. Because it was outside the officially mapped “very severe” hazard zone, more than five miles to the east, Coffey Park was exempt from regulations designed to make buildings fire resistant in high-risk areas.
California fire officials developed hazard maps in the 2000s that for the first time, tied building codes to geographies based on risk. Max Moritz, a fire specialist with the University of California’s Cooperative Extension, said the maps were an important step forward in assessing fire danger.
But the Coffey Park catastrophe has shown that the methodology, and the law underlying it, were too narrow.
“With a lot of hazard mapping, once you get into a density of development, it’s mapped urban and it’s considered unburnable,” Moritz said. “From its core, our whole approach to fire behavior modeling, we are not talking about burning in urbanized environments.”
The fire hazard zones now need to be recast with more consideration for the impact of wildland fire on developed areas, Moritz said.
Revisions of the hazard maps are in the works and will incorporate lessons from the Tubbs fire, said Dave Sapsis, Research Program Specialist with the state’s Fire and Resource Assessment Program, the unit of Cal Fire that maps fire hazard zones.
“I do believe when we remap we are going to be looking at new data that could potentially expand these very high zones into areas that were not mapped.” Sapsis said.
Although a forensic examination will be required to understand exactly what happened at Coffey Park, the unburned trees still standing in the neighborhood tell wildland fire experts that the cause was not a giant front of flames sweeping out of the nearby hills and fields.
Most likely, the fire was touched off by embers blown from a distance. Firebrands capable of igniting a house can travel more than a mile.
“When you’ve got firebrands going into every crook and cranny, they’re going to find somewhere to start combustion,” Sapsis said.
Fire experts surmise that most of the damage was caused by fire spreading from house to house, leaving some parkway trees and things like trash cans oddly unscathed.