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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.

Rebuilding the hillside Fountaingrove neighborhood continues to lag other areas of the city.

Seven and a half months after the Tubbs fire decimated the area, just 26 homes are under construction, 2 percent of the 1,400 homes incarcerated by the blaze.

That’s a fifth of the number that are being rebuilt in the Coffey Park neighborhood to the west.

There’s more than that in the pipeline, of course, with 91 permits submitted and 49 issued. But the pace is still far slower than city officials and residents had hoped. Citywide, 250 permits have been issued for new homes in the fire zone.

The reasons for the anemic pace of construction in Fountaingrove are numerous.

The cleanup process managed by the Army Corps of Engineers got underway later in Fountaingrove than in other areas. The home sites in Fountaingrove, many of which are larger than lots in other neighborhoods, have taken longer to clear. A high percentage of insurance claims remain unresolved. And contamination in parts of the water system has added a new layer of uncertainty as residents decide whether to rebuild.

One thing Fountaingrove has going for it, however, is that key parts of its infrastructure appear to have fared better than other parts of the city.

The electrical system in particular emerged from the firestorm in much better shape than the system in Coffey Park, which was completely fried by the Tubbs fire.

While it took Pacific Gas & Electric Co. crews months to rebuild Coffey Park’s electrical grid, Fountaingrove’s underground power lines could be re-energized almost immediately after inspections confirmed the lines were largely unscathed, said Andy Dashner, the company’s director of service planning and design.

It’s not entirely clear why the lines running about three feet under the sidewalk fared better in Fountaingrove, though it could have something to do with the lower density of homes in the area compared to the compact Coffey Park neighborhood, Dashner said.

PG&E crews and contractors are now making significant progress upgrading the utility infrastructure in the Fountaingrove and Hidden Valley neighborhoods.

The company has completed upgrades to three subdivisions where about 100 homes once stood, ensuring that residents will connect to a fully modernized electrical system when they rebuild their homes.

Crews, many from out of the area, have been installing new hookups that will allow residents to easily reconnect to power temporarily during home construction and when the home is ready for occupancy, he said.

“Our goal is to complete all of our subdivision work by the end of the year,” Dashner said.


Another key utility in Fountaingrove, municipal water service, is also showing signs of improvement.

After months of concern that benzene contamination might force a wholesale replacement of the water system, city officials say that may no longer be necessary.

The steady drop in benzene levels in the water mains — as opposed to the water service lines — gives them hope the cancer-causing chemical is steadily getting flushed out of the water system in the 184-acre advisory area.

“The data suggests it may be premature to rush into full replacement,” said Ben Horenstein, director of Santa Rosa Water.

Instead, the city is initially planning to spend $3.4 million to replace 500 water service lines — 350 in the advisory area and 150 outside the area — and hope contamination levels in the mains continue to drop and eventually disappear.

The service line replacements are expected to be completed by Aug. 3, after which additional testing will be performed to assess the success of the strategy.

The city’s evolving approach to resolving the contamination problem has given some property owners pause. Several attended a private meeting with city officials May 15 at the Finley Community Center.

The meeting was organized by Willie Tamayo, founder of La Tortilla Factory, who asked the media not attend to allow residents and city officials to speak freely. In addition to Horenstein, attendees included City Councilmembers Tom Schwedhelm and John Sawyer; David Guhin, director of planning and economic development; and Jennifer Burke, deputy director of water resources.

Guhin said the city has conducted a number of such meetings in the community in recent months to address issues regarding rebuilding, including at Kaiser Permanente and Keysight Technologies.

Joe Kates, a Fountaingrove property owner who attended the meeting, said there was debate about the wisdom of the phased approach. Some residents who’ve been struggling to figure out how to rebuild in the area have viewed the benzene problem as the final straw and decided to move on.

But Kates, a retired molecular biologist, said he was actually encouraged by the city’s systematic and data-driven approach to solving the problem.

“It was a very strong signal and, on the basis of that, my wife and I are committed to rebuilding,” he said.


An emerging problem during the rebuild has been the removal of too much dirt from some burned sites in the Fountaingrove area.

This is due, in part, to confusion over how much arsenic is acceptable within the soil and the unique geological formations in the region. A naturally occurring metalloid, arsenic can cause cancer in humans if ingested in high concentrations, such as drinking contaminated well water.

Only recently, however, have agencies agreed to examine and remedy problems caused by over-excavation.

The County of Sonoma and the City of Santa Rosa in partnership with the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services have agreed to review an estimated 200 sites in Sonoma County that may have been over-excavated and replace the dirt if warranted.

Over-excavation can be a costly problem for people seeking to rebuild, requiring large amounts of clean fill material to hauled back to the property before construction can begin.

If it is found the site was over-excavated, the state’s contractor, Orange County-based Sukut Construction, will return excess soil that should not have been removed.

State crews are currently operating in Mendocino County, but will be coming to Santa Rosa and Sonoma County in two to three weeks, CalOES officials said.

The work will be done at no cost to property owners, and the state will seek reimbursement for the expenses from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

To report over-excavation concerns, property owners can call the Sonoma County Recovers Information Line at 707-565-1222 between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., Monday – Friday, email info@sonomacountyrecovers.org; or visit the County Administrator’s Office at 575 Administration Dr., Suite 104A. Property owners must report concerns by May 31 to receive a site assessment.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 707-521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.

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