Displaced Sonoma County residents wrestle with rise in post-fire visitors to burned neighborhoods
With heavy construction machinery clawing away at plots where homes once stood in Coffey Park, displaced residents returning to search for any surviving mementos in the rubble have noticed an uptick in visitors to the site of their staggering loss.
The destroyed Santa Rosa neighborhood is not unique in this trend. From Larkfield to Sonoma Valley, blocks laid to waste by last month’s fires in Sonoma County have reopened to the public, and with that traffic have come new concerns from residents about the ruins of their homes now being regarded by outsiders as spectacles.
Representatives of the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office and Santa Rosa Police Department said the activity hasn’t risen to the level where law enforcement would be compelled to step in. And it’s unclear exactly what could be done to limit foot and vehicle traffic on streets open to the public.
But it’s sparked a debate in the community that has spread to social media, where some people critical of the post-?wildfire attention have alluded to it being disaster tourism or worse, fire-victim voyeurism.
The issue has pitted peoples’ natural curiosity in the aftermath of the state’s most devastating series of wildfires against a sincere desire among residents to shield what remains of their ravaged neighborhoods from the prying eyes of gawkers.
“It’s like a sideshow,” said longtime Coffey Park renter Sarah Kitchen, tears welling up in her eyes. “It’s like they can’t wait to get in and look at everything now. And then you’ve got people that just (take) videos and selfies of themselves. It just sucks.”
The native Santa Rosan and married mother of three daughters said a couple of her neighbors posted signs requesting that they be left to grieve in peace. They’re not the only ones, with a number of homemade signs springing up in burn zones across the county.
“Respectfully, residents only please. Our devastation is not a spectator sport,” read a sign on the corner of Greene Street and Treehaven Lane in Kenwood.
“This is not an amusement park,” stated another off Coffey Park’s Gold Leaf Lane. “Take your pictures and move on.”
Robert Fliedner, a Santa Rosa resident whose home off Mark West Springs Road survived the Tubbs fire, said he didn’t see a problem with heading out to observe and capture images of the historic event that will be talked about for generations. Nor had he run into much pushback from impacted homeowners during multiple days in the field.
“I’m kind of documenting it,” said Fliedner, whose hobby is photography. “I’ve never gotten anything like this. I’ve seen quite a few people out photographing, actually. Someone asked, the question was, ‘Can I help you find something?’ I just told them I was shooting pictures.”
With 5,100 homes destroyed across Sonoma County, and hundreds more across a wider fire-scarred area of Northern California, the issue is a universal one. Even homeowners who lost their houses said they understood the desire to see the devastation firsthand.
“Everybody in the community is grieving,” said Rincon Valley resident Jill Richardson, who lost her family’s home of 27 years. “I can’t fault people for needing to process it even though their homes are safe. That’s what I just did, I just drove up and around Fountaingrove, because I hadn’t been there yet.”
Reports of looting and the arrest of seven suspects in the fires’ aftermath prompted some residents to post signs urging outsiders to stay away, according to a resident of Baird Road on Santa Rosa’s northeastern outskirts.
In Fountaingrove, where more than 1,000 homes were destroyed, Erin Wood had yet to see many people taking in the wreckage of her cul-de-sac, where only a single home stands. Her son Lucas, 4, joined her for a stopover Tuesday afternoon to await a contractor. Her 10-year-old son does not wish to see what remains of their home.
Wood said she sympathized with those wanting to witness the fires’ toll.
“It would bother me, I think, if I saw people rifling through my stuff or gawking,” said Wood, whose family has relocated to Penngrove for the time being. “I kind of was like, what am I going to do if I catch someone? I was going to videotape them and yell at them, but it’s like, there’s nothing to do.”
Back in Coffey Park, a stone’s throw away from Dogwood Drive, where Kitchen and her neighbors lived, Ken Tomsen was sifting through his leveled home, where just the brick chimney and a handful of singed trees stand. Tomsen, with his wife, Susan, has lived in Santa Rosa for more than three decades. He said public attention and understanding of the unprecedented disaster could help fuel a quicker, stronger recovery.
“I think it’s healthy to a degree that you drive through and see what’s happened, what other people had to go through even though you may live on a street that’s not in this condition,” he said, gazing over the rubble of his house with clear sadness. “But it’s OK - as long as it doesn’t get to become a circus.”
You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or at email@example.com. On Twitter @kfixler.