Subscribe

‘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.”

Former Coffey Strong board members Annie Barbour, left, Pamela Van Halsema, Jeff Okrepkie, and Steve Rahmn, used the lessons, expertise, and skills they acquired in their neighborhood support group to launch new careers.  (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)
Former Coffey Strong board members Annie Barbour, left, Pamela Van Halsema, Jeff Okrepkie, and Steve Rahmn, used the lessons, expertise, and skills they acquired in their neighborhood support group to launch new careers. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)

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

Anne Barbour stands along the fire-resistant Hopper Avenue wall in the Coffey Park neighborhood of Santa Rosa, California on Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020. (Erik Castro / For The Press Democrat)
Anne Barbour stands along the fire-resistant Hopper Avenue wall in the Coffey Park neighborhood of Santa Rosa, California on Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020. (Erik Castro / For The Press Democrat)

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.”

New priorities

Steve Rahmn looks out of the front window of his nearly rebuilt home towards his neighbors houses along Santiago Drive in the Coffey Park neighborhood of Santa Rosa on Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2019. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)
Steve Rahmn looks out of the front window of his nearly rebuilt home towards his neighbors houses along Santiago Drive in the Coffey Park neighborhood of Santa Rosa on Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2019. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)

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.

“We do power generation — solar and battery-powered generators. It’s all designed to help people dealing with PSPSes,” said Rahmn, referring to the necessary but highly disruptive public safety power shutoffs initiated by PG&E.

Firebrand was founded by Richard Kirby, a volunteer firefighter with a background in construction management. “I fell in love with his vision,” said Rahmn, “because of what I’ve been through.”

Working for Coffey Strong, learning firsthand how the city’s permitting system works — “or how it’s supposed to work,” said Rahmn, who noted that the Santa Rosa Fire Department is struggling to process permits in a timely fashion — “has helped me understand how to navigate that process.”

Among the challenges facing Firebrand: Supply chain issues have resulted in long lead times for some generators. The young company will overcome those obstacles, Rahmn is sure. He and his colleagues are nothing if not resilient.

“It feels good to do something”

Pamela Van Halsema earned an award from Sonoma County for her landscape using native plants. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat, 2019)
Pamela Van Halsema earned an award from Sonoma County for her landscape using native plants. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat, 2019)

It gave Pamela Van Halsema a sense of control, immediately after losing her house in the Tubbs fire, to make list upon list of questions, “and then seek answers to those questions,” she recalled.

“After you lose it all, where do you even start?”

Van Halsema is now answering that question for fellow fire survivors as director of community and digital programs for After The Fire, formerly known as Rebuild NorthBay. After broadening its scope from Northern California to all of the American West, the nonprofit changed its name to After The Fire.

Coffey Park has been rebuilt, but wildfires haven’t gone anywhere. There is much work to do elsewhere, said Van Halsema, another ex-president of Coffey Strong, pointing to communities razed by more recent, destructive blazes in Paradise, Greenville and northwest Oregon, to name just a few.

The purpose of After The Fire, she said, is to provide as many answers as possible to survivors. No one should have to “invent their own recovery,” she said, when such a trove of resources is available from those who have gone through it before them.

Van Halsema spent 15 years working for the school of education at Sonoma State University. One of her jobs there was webmaster. With Rebuild NorthBay morphing into After The Fire, CEO Jennifer Gray Thompson hired her to overhaul the nonprofit’s website.

But her role soon expanded. Van Halsema now travels to communities devastated by fires, to meet and listen to survivors, ask questions, then offer assistance.

The idea, she said, is to network with them “and give them give them access to tools they didn’t know existed.”

The people she ends up meeting, she said, are county supervisors, block captains, school superintendents — the kinds of folks “who step up and say, ‘I want to help shape the way our community recovers.’”

In those emerging leaders she recognizes herself and her fellow Coffey Strong directors. All share her preference to be proactive.

“We can sit here and watch all these places burn or we can do something,” she said. “It feels good to do something.”

Taking the leap

Jeff Okrepkie sits down to dinner with his son Tillman, 2, and wife, Stephanie, at their home in Santa Rosa, California, on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)
Jeff Okrepkie sits down to dinner with his son Tillman, 2, and wife, Stephanie, at their home in Santa Rosa, California, on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)

At the same Luther Burbank Center gathering where Anne Barbour mustered the courage to raise her hand, Jeff Okrepkie — a commercial insurance agent who also lost his home — stood on the stage with Supervisor Gore.

Wielding Sharpies on a giant map of Coffey Park, Gore and Okrepkie divided the neighborhood into five “areas,” then invited people to volunteer to be block captains.

That impromptu boundary-making was “completely arbitrary,” recalled Okrepkie, who got on his phone after the meeting to secure the internet domain for Coffey Strong.

Those early steps led to an unqualified success story: Coffey Strong became one of the most effective grassroots efforts Sonoma County has ever seen.

They have also led Okrepkie to the cusp of a much more public career. On Oct. 7, the day after Santa Rosa City Council Member Tom Schwedhelm broke the news that he wouldn’t be running for a third term, Okrepkie announced that he’d be running for Schwedhelm’s District 6 seat.

“I had never intended to run for office at any point,” he told The Press Democrat after announcing his candidacy. Since founding Coffey Strong and serving as its first president, however, then sitting on the Santa Rosa Planning Commission, Okrepkie gained a “breadth of experience about how to be a part of, lead and improve local government,” according to his website.

Schwedhelm, his Coffey Park neighbor, saw in Okrepkie a raw political talent, someone with the “skills and abilities” to serve on City Council. It was Schwedhelm who appointed him to the Planning Commission.

More significantly, he endorsed Okrepkie to replace him, praising his “ability to organize and deliver for Coffey Park despite being a fire survivor himself.”

Running for City Council, then serving, should he win — all the while holding down his day job — will take a big chunk of time, Okrepkie allows. But the timing is fortuitous, he believes. While the Coffey Park rebuild is mostly done, his house is completely finished.

“We’re back in our house, we’re stable,” he said.

“I’m ready to take the leap.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @ausmurph88.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.
Send a letter to the editor

Our Network

The Press Democrat
Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Sonoma County Gazette