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Special coverage

This story is part of a monthly series in 2018 chronicling the rebuilding efforts in Sonoma County’s four fire zones: Coffey Park, Fountaingrove, the greater Mark West area and Sonoma Valley. Read all of the Rebuild North Bay coverage here.

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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

Warm weather is coming, and with it the prospect of more homes rising in Coffey Park.

By April 20, builders had begun constructing 50 homes in the northwest Santa Rosa neighborhood, according to the city’s website. That compares with fewer than 20 a month earlier.

Even so, large sections of the burned area remain little more than charred trees and cleared, empty lots.

“There’s not as much movement as one would think six months out,” said Jeff Okrepkie, chairman of the Coffey Strong neighborhood group. “You want to see more happening.”

The Tubbs wildfire claimed four lives and 1,200 homes in the neighborhood in October. The debris from those homes has been hauled away, but an enormous recovery effort still must be undertaken.

Many fire survivors are battling with their insurance companies over money to replace their homes, Okrepkie said. He worries more neighbors will get fed up and choose to sell their lots rather than try to rebuild.

Nonetheless, Coffey Strong volunteers have been holding gatherings to bring neighbors together. Events include barbecues, potlucks and a communitywide seminar for fire survivors seeking to rebuild.

The organization also is getting quotes for rebuilding the long walls bordering Hopper Avenue. The walls, which extend 1,500 feet on both sides of the road, were damaged in the fire. In response, Florida debris removal company AshBritt has promised to make a “significant” financial contribution to replacing the structures. AshBritt is working on the project with Coffey Strong and the nonprofit Rebuild North Bay.

Here is a recap of other Coffey Park happenings within the past month:

Reimagining a damaged park

The 5 acres of public parkland in the middle of the neighborhood remain a green space, but one littered with wood shards, glass, fiberglass and other debris that blew in during the firestorm.

“There’s all sorts of stuff out there that we don’t feel we can clean,” said Jason Nutt, the city’s public works director and interim director of recreation and parks. The park received debris in amounts far greater than occurred at parks in the burned Fountaingrove neighborhood east of Highway 101.

Some topsoil likely needs to be scraped away at the park, Nutt said, just as it was done on the surrounding homes.

The city plans to rebuild the park “from scratch,” he said. It started talking with neighbors about what features they want at the park.

Proposals so far include adding a dog park and a public bathroom. The latter idea has been debated by neighbors. Some fear a restroom would draw homeless people, while others say it would save parents of toddlers from having to race home in the middle of a park visit.

The new park also may include some type of public art installation, possibly one that touches on the historic fire. However, Okrepkie said such art needs to be sensitive to those who don’t want to relive the horror and heartache.

“It should be about hope,” he said.

Utility work gets underway

Construction crews in April began replacing key underground utility lines in the neighborhood.

Pacific Gas & Electric Co.is overseeing the work, which will include 23 miles of trenches in the Coffey Park, Mark West Springs and Hidden Valley neighborhoods.

Into the trenches workers are placing new electrical and natural gas lines, plus phone wires and cables for television.

Special coverage

This story is part of a monthly series in 2018 chronicling the rebuilding efforts in Sonoma County’s four fire zones: Coffey Park, Fountaingrove, the greater Mark West area and Sonoma Valley.

Read all of the Rebuild North Bay coverage here.

By April 20, crews in Coffey Park had dug more than 2,000 feet of trenches and completed the installation of 1,400 feet of conduit. Workers there eventually must dig 15 miles of trenches. The project’s completion is planned for the end of October.

For any fire survivors able to move back in before the underground work is completed, the utility will connect the rebuilt homes with electricity and natural gas, said PG&E spokeswoman Deanna Contreras.

In December the utility brought electricity back to the entire neighborhood by stringing overhead wires and streetlights on temporary poles. And the existing natural gas lines, while slated to be replaced, were pressurized to temporarily serve the neighborhood.

The utility similarly has installed temporary electrical lines in all the county burn areas except Fountaingrove, Contreras said. But some homebuilders still have brought in large generators to Coffey Park and other rebuild areas.

She said utility workers have contacted those builders and told them, “Hey, you don’t need a generator. We can hook you up.”

Help for businesspeople

Many fire survivors didn’t just lose homes when the flames hit. They also lost cars, tools and shops needed to run their businesses.

Their ranks include landscapers, painters, house cleaners, musicians and others — most who used their houses for home offices or places to secure key equipment. Exact numbers are hard to come by, but a local service club has received requests for fire relief from more than 250 county business owners.

“What we found were these home businesses are really at the fabric of our community,” said José Guillén, a project manager for a fire relief fund overseen by local Rotary club leaders.

The Rotary members have interviewed fire survivors and are helping to distribute roughly $1.4 million in fire relief, including $1.1 million from the North Bay Fire Relief Fund, a partnership of the Redwood Credit Union, The Press Democrat and state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg. The fund raised and distributed $32 million to more than 6,500 fire survivors and aid efforts.

By early April, the Rotarians had approved grants to 161 small businesses and 71 individuals.

In Coffey Park, the affected businesspeople included John Thill, who lost his Dogwood Drive home and the property on Mark West Springs Road where he has operated his auto body shop for 11 years. He expressed gratitude for the $5,000 in aid he received from the Rotary program.

So did John LaBonte, who runs his own painting business and obtained help from at least a dozen organizations and businesses.

Without such help, he said, “there is no way that we could have gotten back on our feet. We’re far from 100 percent, but we are able to do work.”

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 707-521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @rdigit.

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