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PD Editorial: Learning lessons from Northern California’s fires

Richard Vignone and his neighbor Joe Montano greet one another after returning to their Larkfield homes on Monday (KENT PORTER / The Press Democrat)

THE EDITORIAL BOARD, BY THE EDITORIAL BOARD

Firefighters are gaining control of the monstrous fires burning across Wine Country, evacuees are beginning to return home, there’s less smoke and soot in the air, and forecasters say the season’s first rain may be on the way.

After 10 stressful days, things are returning to normal — at least a new normal — for most of us.

We all grieve for the 41 people, including one firefighter, who lost their lives in one of the worst natural disasters in California history.

Thousands more are newly homeless, their lives changed forever.

The fires — Tubbs and Nuns, Atlas and Partrick, Redwood Valley and Sulphur — are still burning. But containment lines are nearing completion, and the urgency of the firefight already is giving way to the long and uncertain process of rebuilding.

“Our community is continuing toward a recovery process,” Santa Rosa police Chief Hank Schreeder said at Tuesday’s news briefing. “We’re doing a lot of planning in that direction right now.”

The immediate challenges are housing and debris removal.

Santa Rosa lost about 5 percent of its housing stock in the fire, Mayor Chris Coursey estimated. Homes also burned in unincorporated areas — along Mark West Springs Road, in Larkfield, Kenwood, Glen Ellen and elsewhere. We don’t yet know how many.

Sonoma County already was struggling with rising costs, low vacancy rates and little agreement about how to meet the demand for affordable housing.

Rebuilding will take time, and public agencies faced with a crush of applications also will take a near-term hit on their property tax revenue, which could complicate efforts to add staff to quickly process building permits.

Help from FEMA will be needed for some time. The federal disaster agency provided housing assistance, including tens of thousands of trailers, for more than six years after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005. We hope this can go faster, and we encourage local officials to allow people to live in trailers or camp on their lots while waiting to rebuild.

Before anything is rebuilt, debris must be removed. FEMA already has authorized funding to remove rubble in Sonoma and several other counties affected by the wildfire, but a timeline and details remain to be worked out. In most cases, removal should be free, officials said at a community meeting last weekend.

Property owners can hire authorized contractors, and some insurance policies cover removal.

Public health officials warn that fire debris may be toxic or hazardous, potentially including building materials that contain asbestos and lead as well as any pesticides or chemicals that burned. Please wear a mask and gloves if your home burned and you plan to search for salvageable belongings.

Investigators are still trying to determine what caused these fires, but it’s not too soon to re-examine California’s fire hazard maps, building codes and strategies for preventing catastrophic fires, including consideration of placing utility lines underground so strong winds don’t knock down power lines.

To live in California is to live with wildfires. But the danger is growing along with the number of people living in what’s known as urban-wildland interface. We must be prepared.