There aren’t many trees left on Treehaven Court in Kenwood.
“It was like a fireball that night,” said James Lee, pointing to the Mayacamas Mountains to the east. “It just blew down into the valley and took out most of the houses and everything else in this neighborhood. We used to have a row of beautiful redwoods along the driveway. The only thing that’s improved is our view of Sugarloaf.”
One structure on the property owned by Lee and his wife, Sammie, did survive: their workshop. Inside its shadowed interior reposes a beautiful jonquil yellow 1951 GMC pickup. James had finished restoring the truck shortly before the Nuns fire broke out in October.
“We had left with our grandson with fire all around us,” said Sammie Lee. “Our neighbors saved this workshop by emptying their swimming pool. It was incredibly kind and brave of them.”
James shook his head at the recollection.
“If we had lost that workshop, I don’t know, I don’t think we would be rebuilding,” he said. “We’re both 79. I’m not sure we’d have the heart for it.”
But the couple does plan to rebuild, emphasized his wife. They’ve cleared the debris and resolved most of the geotechnical issues, as confirmed by a large divot marking the site of their former home, where toxic soil was removed.
“We’ve passed our soil tests, and we’re working on our construction plans,” said James Lee. “After that, we have to get a contractor and make sure we have enough money to do what we want to do. It’s tough, because the cost of building materials has skyrocketed since the fires, and even the best contractors can only give you a ballpark estimate. I was in construction for 35 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this.”
The Lees have been heartened to some degree by initial visits to Sonoma County’s Permit and Resource Management Department, where a “resiliency permit center” has been established to help fire victims and their contractors work through the complex and often daunting construction permit process.
“They seem to be doing a pretty good job down there,” said James Lee.
County and Santa Rosa city officials have sought to accelerate the recovery from the most destructive wildfire in state history by streamlining the permit process for people seeking to rebuild. The approach, for the most part, is helping fire survivors advance rebuilding projects and reach their objectives more quickly, according to residents with plans in the pipeline.
“I can’t say enough about the good job the people here are doing,” said Robert Anderson, an architect and a former Sebastopol mayor and planning commissioner. “Being an architect, I know my way around here, but I see them helping all these people who come in without a clue about what to do, people who never had to pull a permit before. The emphasis is on expediting the process, though it would be a mistake to think they’re giving away the farm. They’re telling people what they need and ensuring they receive their permits quickly once they’ve produced the correct documentation.”
David Lawson, a Forestville contractor whose daughter and son-in-law lost a home in the Coffey Park blaze, concurred with Anderson about the helpful intent of PRMD staffers, but maintained the agency’s “interface” with an anxious and time-constrained public is less than ideal.