Hope and loss mark recovery in fire-scarred Mendocino County

REDWOOD VALLEY - Yellow daffodils are poking up from the blackened landscape in Mendocino County's Redwood Valley nearly five months after a deadly wildfire raged through the bucolic hamlet, killing nine people, destroying a third of the homes and causing $170 million in damage.

New RVs sit atop freshly graded lots and property owners are hard at work, removing charred trees and erecting new fences in preparation for construction projects.

County officials have issued 16 building permits, and the first projects are expected to break ground soon after the end of winter rains.

Shock from the worst disaster ever to befall the tight-knit community has given way to pangs of loss, but also optimism and a sense of purpose. Residents are hopeful it will come back like a hearty perennial.

“There's a lot left to do but we are on our way,” Dan Hamburg, chairman of the Board of Supervisors, told residents at a recent town hall meeting. “Slowly, things are starting to get better.”

But recovery has many obstacles and it's unclear how many of the town's 1,700 inhabitants will return.

Although federal contractors have cleared debris from 90 percent of properties for government cleanup, the ruins of Tim and Kate Roemer's house remain untouched because steep terrain is preventing access by heavy equipment. Contractors balked after taking one look at it.

He's relocated indefinitely to his mother-in-law's house in Ukiah.

“It turns out, they didn't want to do the hard stuff,” said Roemer, a 72-year-old retired nurse as he poked through the ruins of his two-story house. “They say we're access-challenged.”

Other property owners say too much ground has been removed from their land, requiring them to pay thousands of dollars to fill it in.

Monterey Road resident John Holder said the expense comes on top of hundreds he's spent for county-required compaction reports and a building permit. It is a frustrating situation that is prompting more of his neighbors to put up for-sale signs than new houses, he said.

“It's just getting out of hand,” said Holder, 69, a retired roofer, who lives in an RV on his land. “I'm tired of fighting with them. They are not helping us like they said.”

And questions remain about the future of the water supply system serving more than 180 homes in the hardest-hit north end of the valley. Officials say a bigger, better water main is necessary to provide more capacity for new hydrants and state-mandated fire sprinklers. The cost is estimated at $9 million.

Until it's installed, many of the homes can't be rebuilt.

“This is a really critical project for the restoration of Redwood Valley,” Hamburg said.

Despite the challenges, the once-verdant valley that is home to grape growers and urban and suburban refugees has come a long way since the historic fire. Early Oct. 9, flames raced over the hills from neighboring Potter Valley, forcing a massive evacuation and surprising many who were asleep in their homes.

Like emergency officials in Sonoma County, Mendocino County chose not to send wireless alerts, relying instead on a series of calls to landlines starting at 1:47 a.m., Sheriff's Capt. Greg Van Patten said.

Nine people were killed including Kressa Shepherd, 17, and her 14-year-old brother, Kai, who along with their parents tried to outrun the blaze as it approached their driveway. Others died trapped in cars or garages while trying to flee or waiting to be rescued.

Roemer said he was awakened around 1:30 a.m. by a call from a friend. He looked outside and saw the hills across the valley aglow. Cars streamed north past his driveway on Tomki Road. He and his wife grabbed their valuables and fled to Willits.

“You could hear the fire,” Roemer said. “It sounded like a couple of jet engines and several locomotives roaring.”

Before it was contained, the inferno swept the north end of the valley, destroying 387 homes and burning almost 36,000 acres. Damage to public property alone was estimated at $12 million.

The cause remains under investigation.

The Redwood Valley fire was one of dozens of blazes to break out almost simultaneously across Northern California under warm and gusty conditions. Hundreds of victims in multiple counties have sued PG&E, claiming the fires were sparked by fallen power lines or faulty equipment. Cal Fire and state Public Utilities Commission investigations are ongoing.

Now, a recovery is underway that could rebuild at least half of the leveled homes in five years, officials said. It is benefiting in large part from millions of dollars in state and federal aid expected to pay for things like temporary housing vouchers, portable homes and the repair of damaged infrastructure.

State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, said in the town meeting at Eagle Peak Middle School he was confident he would find a way to pay for a new water main for the tiny Redwood Valley Water District.

“A promise was made not to turn our backs on Mendocino County,” said McGuire, whose district runs the North Coast from the Golden Gate to the Oregon border. “I do believe we will be able to deliver on that promise.”

Work began with government-contracted debris removal under the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. As of this week, 292 out of 314 parcels had been cleared of nearly 100,000 tons of rubble, said Tammy Moss-Chandler, the county's recovery services director.

Officials are working out special contracts to clear the remaining 22 hard-to-reach parcels. A time estimate was not available.

“None will be left behind,” she said.

At the same time, the Army Corps is checking multiple complaints of over-excavation. Moss-Chandler said the federal government is paying for new dirt if a property was mistakenly graded too far below foundations or basements.

“Sometimes contractors have a different idea than the property owner did,” Hamburg said. “Those things need to be adjudicated. I've talked to people who make a pretty good case that their contractor didn't do a good job.”

Many more people are ready to build. In addition to permits already issued, the county has 27 applications in the pipeline and has issued 45 administrative permits allowing people to park RVs on their property while they rebuild.

It was unclear how many people were able to find rental homes in the tight market. But the Federal Emergency Management Agency has put up 25 families in camp trailers at the Redwood Empire Fairgrounds. Those families will soon be moved to the renovated Kyen Campground in Calpella, Moss-Chandler said.

“Our dream is that Redwood Valley would come back and be even better,” Moss-Chandler said.

That sentiment is echoed by Sheilah Rogers, vice chairwoman of the Redwood Valley Municipal Advisory Council, who expects 85 percent of the population will return.

Her group, which advises the Board of Supervisors on planning policy, will seize the chance to make improvements. She pointed to a daylong event March 24 at Mendocino College in Ukiah called “Coming Home,” where residents can attend workshops and talk to contractors about housing.

“This is a terrible tragedy but also an opportunity to rebuild better and safer,” Rogers said.

By most accounts, the community has rallied in the face of disaster. Volunteers with a group called Operation Mailbox are combing the valley, replacing scorched mailboxes with donated material. So far they've installed 50 mailboxes, organizer Danilla Sands said. Most sit in front of lots with no houses on them, quiet symbols of resilience.

Others, like Mark Fetzer, are busy felling burned trees. He's milling charred redwood from his dad's West Road property to be used in new construction. The rest is firewood.

“We'll have a pretty impressive stockpile,” Fetzer said. “Too impressive.”

Coupled with a bumper crop of daffodils and green grasses, the activity is a hopeful sight, Hamburg said.

“You can see where there's a lot of improvement,” Hamburg said. “There's been a little rain so things are greening up a bit. But you can also see what a daunting task there is still ahead for people.”

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 707-568-5312 or On Twitter @ppayne.

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