The first home went up in Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park neighborhood, kids returned to school, debris removal was completed and a larger builder pulled out of the rebuilding effort. Here's a recap of key events in Coffey Park in January and February.
The first home
The new year began with construction workers erecting a three-bedroom, two-bathroom house on Kerry Lane. It is the first home destroyed in the October wildfires to be rebuilt in Santa Rosa, where 3,000 residences were leveled during the firestorm.
Workers were able to reuse the home’s foundation, an exception in Coffey Park, where the vast majority of foundations were removed as part of the government-funded debris cleanup. The foundation’s concrete underwent strength testing and the results “were well above the minimum requirements,” said Dan Bradford, the property’s owner.
Bradford expects the home to be completed this spring. He expressed excitement at the progress and said he is “praying it gives hope to others that rebuilding in a timely manner is a distinct possibility.”
His builder, Lake County Contractors of Cobb, is among a number of construction companies large and small that are seeking work in Coffey Park. Many of those contractors have said they expect to begin work there this spring.
Back to school
Police, firefighters, National Guard personnel, community members and elected officials converged in early January to welcome nearly 400 students returning to the neighborhood’s Schaefer Elementary School.
Schaefer had been closed since October because of concerns over the effects of debris cleanup on campus air quality. As a result, students and teachers temporarily held classes at three other campuses in the Piner-Olivet school district.
Officials said air monitoring tests in December showed it was safe to reopen the school after winter break.
On the morning of their return, students found their playground filled with fire engines, police cars, motorcycles and at least one Army National Guard Hummer. First responders greeted the students and handed out hundreds of stuffed animals.
Parents and a school official spoke of the strong bonds made between teachers and children in the aftermath of the fires. They said the children are learning firsthand about compassion, caring and how people bounce back from adversity.
“You look for a silver lining, and that’s been our silver lining,” said John Way, a Schaefer parent and Piner-Olivet school board member.
Builder pulls out
DeNova Homes, a large Bay Area homebuilder, canceled plans in January to rebuild homes in Coffey Park.
The Concord company sent neighborhood residents a letter announcing its decision. DeNova cited concerns that its construction partners could not guarantee the “resources that are necessary to implement our cost-effective production model.”
It wasn’t revealed how many homeowners were affected by the company’s decision. DeNova recently stated that 75 homeowners had expressed “serious interest” in working with the builder, Coffey Strong chairman Jeff Okrepkie said.
The withdrawal fueled concern that other builders could have trouble getting enough construction workers to accommodate all the homeowners who want to rebuild this year.
“Our fear is that this is a bellwether of the way things are going to go,” Okrepkie said.
Debris removal complete
Before January ended, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced its contractors had completed the cleanup of debris from more than 1,200 houses in Coffey Park.
The government-sponsored cleanup began in late October a few weeks after the wildfires. It became available to property owners who lost homes in the region’s four counties affected by the fires. In Coffey Park, the vast majority of homeowners chose to take part rather than be responsible for their own debris cleanup.
While house debris cleanup ended, some home lots still need burned cars removed. Others might need further soil scraped away if tests found toxics in the dirt.
And most properties aren’t ready for rebuilding. The lots have to be graded before foundations can be poured. And hundreds of burned trees still be removed.
Even so, many saw the Corps’ announcement as a significant milestone.
“Each time we get to one of these points, it just shows that progress is being made,” Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey said. “We’re on our way.”
The cracked concrete walls along Hopper Lane had sagged in places even before the fires. Now Coffey Park residents who live alongside them express dismay over what to do with them.
Many residents thought the city owned the four-decade-old walls, which after the fire look worse as a result of their burned wood facia. However, city officials say the structures belong to each of the 38 property owners whose homes back up to them on both sides of Hopper east of Coffey Lane.
According to one estimate, it would cost $300,000 to replace the walls, not including the cost to knock down and haul away the current structure. Many neighbors said their insurance policies wouldn’t cover that cost, for varying reasons.
The neighbors are seeking an engineer who could determine whether the wall remains structurally sound. If so, residents may keep the walls and spruce them up. However, some neighbors are concerned that people will tear down their portions of the walls, while others leave their sections in place.
Okrepkie said the wall is an example of the problems that pop up during recovery efforts.
“There’s so much that’s unforeseen out there,” he said.
Who was Coffey? Who was Schaefer?
It turns out the neighborhood was named for a man who often pulled up stakes in search of new opportunities. In contrast, the neighborhood school was named for a prune grower who set down roots in Santa Rosa and for years refused to sell to what he called “real estate sharkies” seeking to develop his farm.
Henry Coffey, born in New York in 1832, came to Santa Rosa in 1885 and purchased 320 acres more than 2 miles northwest of town. A father of nine, Coffey already had farmed or raised livestock in four other locations in California and Arizona. He would stay here no more than 15 years before moving on, but it was long enough for a key northwest road to be named Coffey Lane.
“He didn’t let any grass grow under his feet,” observed Katherine Rinehart, manager of the history and genealogy department at the Sonoma County Library. She teamed up with retired Santa Rosa High teacher Mike Daniels to research Coffey’s history.
In contrast to Coffey, Morrice Schaefer, for whom Schaefer School is named, spent most of his adult life in Sonoma County. A native San Franciscan, Schaefer paid $8,500 for his 24-acre farm a short ways south from where Coffey had lived a half-century earlier.
In 1987, and with a wife in ill health, Schaefer reluctantly sold for $1.5 million most of his land for new homes and the school. The campus opened in 1990, two years before Schaefer died at age 84.
You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 707-521-5285 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @rdigit.