‘Keep paying it forward’: Tubbs fire survivors use hard-earned skills from the rebuild to chart new careers
To this day, Anne Barbour isn’t quite sure why she raised her hand.
A week or so after the Tubbs fire of October, 2017, incinerated over 1,400 homes in Coffey Park, including her own, Barbour joined around 400 of her neighbors at the Luther Burbank Center. On the stage, Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore outlined the concept of block captains.
Those who wanted to volunteer to help were asked to raise their hands.
“Had I known what I was signing up for,” said Barbour, “I probably wouldn’t have raised my hand.”
But she did, and she ended up playing a key role in Coffey Strong, the neighborhood support group that spearheaded that community’s remarkably swift comeback.
Barbour’s various hats included compiling a “matrix” of builders to whom survivors might turn. She was indispensable in the reconstruction of the Hopper Wall, and later the neighborhood’s entryway. Along with fellow directors she made repeated trips to the town of Paradise, which was devastated by fire a year later, to share knowledge, resources and encouragement.
Coffey Strong announced in October that it would soon cease operations, its work largely done. Yet there was Barbour, back in Paradise on a recent weekend, working at a resource fair, educating her fellow fire survivors on flame-resistant building materials.
She is now a Northern California coordinator for United Policyholders. That’s the mildly soporific and slightly misleading name of a superb, 30-year-old nonprofit that is not, as some mistakenly assume, an insurance agency. It is, rather, an advocacy group, founded by attorney Amy Bach, that takes the side of fire survivors who find themselves struggling with unexpected gaps in their insurance coverage.
“This is a really great fit for me,” said Barbour, who was hired by United Policyholders after the Glass fire, in the fall of 2020. “I can take what I learned at Coffey Strong and keep paying it forward.”
She is one of at least four former Coffey Strong directors who have taken the knowledge, the skills honed in rebuilding their neighborhoods — and lives — and used them to embark on new careers. Coffey Strong may be history. Through these four, its work lives on.
A tenacious advocate
Barbour had spent three decades in the grocery business, leading up to the Tubbs fire. Sitting in that meeting at the Luther Burbank Center, she didn’t know about construction, insurance, debris removal. She didn’t know the ins and outs of city government. She didn’t know what she didn’t know.
What she did know how to do was look after people, to be their champion. For nearly two decades, Barbour had navigated the health care system, helping extend the life of her husband, Charlie, who suffered from a rare vascular disease. Charlie died in 2013, but Anne never stopped being a forceful, tenacious advocate for people.
And so she raised her hand.
Ever the quick study, she’s made herself an expert on insurance issues. But Barbour’s greatest value to her new team may be the empathy and advice she provides to fire survivors.
“We offer oversight, resources, information, and a lot of that is easier for me,” said Barbour, “because I can tell them what it feels like, for instance, a year after the fire. I can tell them it’s not a party — that’s it’s really a grieving process.”
Losing his Waring Court home in the Tubbs fire reordered Steve Rahmn’s priorities.
Rahmn, the last president of Coffey Strong, was a longtime electrical contractor and project manager, for Novato-based W. Bradley Electric, and Santa Rosa’s Lunardi Electric before that.
Worn down by extensive car travel — his projects ranged as far afield as Rocklin — and intent on spending more time with his wife, Michele, and their two children, he left W. Bradley in July to become chief operating officer of a new company called Firebrand Safety Systems.
Firebrand performs “home hardening,” making properties stronger against the threat of wildfire. It also prepares them for the inevitable power failures that now accompany fire season.