Northern California fires cleanup largest since 1906 earthquake, says state’s emergency director

It has been more than a century since California has seen a disaster on the order of the fires that swept across the North Bay in October.

Mark Ghilarducci, head of state’s Office of Emergency Services, made that comparison Saturday in a public forum as he announced that debris removal in Santa Rosa’s burned Coffey Park neighborhood would completed within two weeks, and the rest of Sonoma County by the end of February.

The news drew applause from several hundred local residents attending a town hall meeting, aimed at updating the community on fire recovery efforts. The meeting, held in the Santa Rosa High School gymnasium, featured representatives of local, state and federal agencies involved in the recovery and rebuilding process.

“This effort is really the largest debris clearance operation that we’ve seen in California since the 1906 earthquake,” Ghilarducci said, referring to the monster temblor that destroyed much of San Francisco.

Ghilarducci said that, in the past two and a half months, 1,800 lots have been cleared of about 1 million tons of debris. He said the pace of local debris removal has been quicker than that of previous efforts.

After the 2015 Butte fire in Amador County, it took five months to clear 800 lots. The same year, it took three months to clear 1,300 lots destroyed by the Valley fire in Lake County.

October’s fires in Sonoma, Mendocino, Napa and Lake counties destroyed 6,190 homes and killed 40 people.

“Our intent is to get your lots cleared,” Ghilarducci said to the crowd.

During the town hall, numerous representatives of government agencies briefed the public on such things as state and financial assistance for rebuilding and recovery efforts; home and property insurance payouts; rebuilding permit fees, watershed protection and flood prevention efforts; and temporary and long-term housing.

Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey pointed out that the first home reconstruction in Coffey Park began last week, calling it, “a tangible indication that recovery is underway.”

“This week, if you drove down Kerry Lane, you could see the walls are framed out on that house,” said Coursey. “And now we have to help replicate that about 3,000 times in Santa Rosa and another couple thousand times outside of the city limits in the county area.”

David Guhin, Santa Rosa’s assistant city manager and head of planning and economic development, discussed a number of steps both the city and Sonoma County have taken to streamline and expedite the permitting process so that property owners can get their homes rebuilt.

The measures include reducing permitting fees, allowing temporary housing and utilities connections on properties that were damaged, encouraging second, smaller units on properties that are being rebuilt and reducing the fees on smaller units.

Guhin said the city’s dedicated permit center in City Hall has received a great deal of traffic and phone calls from residents hoping to rebuild. Permits are now being issued, he said.

“We’re pleased to announce that last night we issued our fourth permit out the door,” Guhin said. “Things are moving through, and we’re starting to see some action.”

Tennis Wick, director of Sonoma County Permit and Resource Management Department, said the county will be announcing this week a reduced rebuild permit fee schedule. Those who have already submitted permit applications under the current fee schedule will be able to apply for a refund covering the difference between the old and new fee schedules, Wick said.

Some firestorm survivors who attended the meeting described a state of limbo caused by post-cleanup delays. Gail Brown, who lost her home on Brookdale Drive, just north of Hidden Valley Park, said her lot has been cleared of debris since Dec. 1, but her property has yet to be tested for soil toxins.

Brown, who said she’s ready to rebuild, said someone she talked to at the town hall meeting gave her a phone number to call.

“It’s kinda’- ‘We don’t know, we’ll get back to you,’?” she said. Brown said her property was one of the first in her neighborhood near Fountaingrove to be cleared of debris. Brown’s daughter, an architect, is redesigning her home, she said.

“My daughter says from the moment we break ground, it will be a year and a half to complete,” she said. “I just feel like I’m in limbo right now, with what still needs to be done.”

That includes getting her soil tested, erosion control and hydro-seeding, she said.

Nathan Wright, who lost his home on San Salvador Drive in the Coffey Park area, said he has gotten an initial payout for his personal property from his insurance company but is still awaiting his insurer’s decision on the rest of the payout.

Wright said his insurance company, Safeco, did not require him to itemize every possession in his home, but it did ask him to put an estimated dollar figure on the contents of each room. Wright said he did so and is now waiting to hear back from the company.

An architect is currently working on the rebuild plans, which when completed will be submitted to contractors for bidding. Wright said he hasn’t yet applied for rebuild permits.

“I’m not slogging through the city process yet, I’m slogging through the insurance process,” he said.

The town hall was hosted by Reps. Mike Thompson and Jared Huffman and also attended by state Sens. Mike McGuire and Bill Dodd, and state Assemblymembers Jim Wood and Cecilia Aguiar-Curry.

After the meeting, McGuire said the cleanup effort is of paramount importance in the rebuilding process.

“We have to have a successful community cleanup to ensure a successful community rebuild,” McGuire said.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or

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