On a Sunday night exactly six months ago, wildfires raced across the North Bay, propelled by strong Diablo winds blowing from the east, as thousands of people raced for their lives.
The firestorm, one of the worst natural disasters in state history, caused almost incomprehensible damage, left thousands of people in need of new homes and exposed alarming gaps in Sonoma County’s emergency operations.
Half a year later, there are promising signs of recovery — and regular reminders of the myriad challenges still to come.
Here’s a look at some of the milestones and some of the unfinished business.
Cleaning up: The task of clearing 3,798 home sites in Sonoma County and about 880 others in Lake, Mendocino and Napa counties was described as the biggest cleanup since the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906.
Since November, contractors have hauled away almost 1.7 million tons of debris — concrete, soil and the remains of people’s belongings. As Staff Writer Guy Kovner reported Friday, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers expects the work to be done by the end of April.
Rebuilding: A handful of new homes already are rising in Santa Rosa and elsewhere in the burn zone, but even more lots have been offered for sale by owners who decided not to rebuild.
Sonoma County and the city of Santa Rosa promise to expedite permits for rebuilding. As of last week, the county had issued 52 permits to rebuild homes lost in the fires, and Santa Rosa had issued 80.
It’s likely to be years before the thousands of homes lost in the fires are rebuilt. And, of course, no one knows if there will be more unexpected setbacks, such as the discovery of benzene contamination that will require the replacement of water lines serving one section of Santa Rosa’s Fountaingrove neighborhood at a cost expected to exceed $30 million.
Emergency alerts: At a hearing last week, Supervisor Shirlee Zane pressed county staff for assurances that they are better prepared to warn residents in the event of a fire, earthquake or other catastrophe. The county acknowledges that it failed in October and promises improvement, but it’s up to Zane and other top officials to ensure that a better system is in place — and that it gets used. Lives depend on it.
Emergency response: California’s mutual-aid system also came up short in October when calls for help from fire agencies around the region outstripped available resources.
With California experiencing more frequent and more severe wildfires, emergency officials are asking for $100 million to position firefighters in advance during red-flag conditions. We’ll be watching to see if state lawmakers include money in the budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1.
Utilities: PG&E has restrung more than 150 miles of power lines and announced creation of a wildfire operations center to monitor weather conditions and, if fire dangers are extreme, shut down power lines in some areas. But the utility will be dealing regulatory issues and litigation for a long time.
Expect more milestones, and more surprise setbacks, in the months ahead. So far, however, this region and its residents are meeting the challenges. #Sonomastrong