Russian River residents, forced from homes by mudslide, seek to return

Rick and Christine Smith are aching for solid ground again.

Forced from their hillside retreat west of Guerneville by a Jan. 9 mudslide, the couple have bounced around for two weeks, taking shelter in one temporary abode after another.

“We just want to go home,” Rick Smith, a 69-year-old retired businessman, ?said Tuesday.

The Smiths are among a dozen residents who were forced to leave their rural enclave above Highway 116 near Vacation Beach on the Russian River because of the mudslide.

The hillside above the homes gave way the afternoon of Jan. 9 following more than 24 hours of heavy rainfall, sending a flume of water, thick mud and uprooted trees cascading down through the forest along an established culvert between the houses. The mud oozed over Santa Rosa Avenue and Old Monte Rio Road, forcing the closure of both thoroughfares at that location.

No houses suffered structural damage as a result of the slide. But Sonoma County officials red-tagged seven homes over concerns the mudslide and more trees at risk of toppling pose lingering threats.

All sides agree that everyone has been working hard to determine what needs to be done to make the neighborhood safe again for habitation.

“They are great people who are under extreme pressure, and they’re doing a great job,” Tennis Wick, the county’s planning director, said Tuesday.

But with each day that passes without residents being allowed to return home, a palpable impatience grows, threatening to undermine the collective sense of unity.

“The frustration level is very high,” said Linda Payne, 69, whose home on Old Monte Rio Road was among those slapped with a stay-away order.

Payne’s father built the 1,200-square-foot house in 1954. She recalled spending her childhood summers cavorting around the hillside and later, bringing her own children there to enjoy the same experience. Payne moved into the house full-time about 20 years ago.

“The story of my life is in that house,” said Payne, who owns a San Francisco day care business. “Coming home to it is what keeps me going some days.”

Mudslides are common in the Russian River area during storms. Longtime residents still recall the big storm of 1998, when a Rio Nido mudslide destroyed 24 homes and caused about $10 million in property damage. The county evacuated 140 homes believed to be at risk and built a massive berm the following year to protect remaining structures from future slides.

Wick, who said he’s in daily contact with residents affected by the Jan. 9 slide, said the county “will work with people” on ensuring the area’s safety and getting residents back home.

But ultimate responsibility for removing hazards might become a matter of dispute.

“There’s a whole bunch of finger-pointing over who takes responsibility,” Rick Smith said.

Smith and his wife are Philadelphia transplants who bought their Santa Rosa Avenue home nine years ago seeking escape from urban life. Christine Smith is a registered nurse who was working on writing a surgical nursing textbook when the slide occurred.

Monte Rio Fire Chief Steve Baxman said the slide, which county officials estimate is about a quarter-mile long, appears to have originated in the area of Duncan Road above Santa Rosa Avenue. Baxman said the county closed Duncan Road several years ago to through traffic and essentially abandoned it. The fire chief said there have been a number of slides in that area in that time.

“Even though the county owns the road, they haven’t maintained it,” Baxman said. “So whose fault is it?”

Some residents now wonder whether the Jan. 9 mudslide could have been prevented, or at least lessened in severity, had more work been done on the hillside above their homes.

“From my background in business manufacturing and quality, I’m a firm believer in preventative maintenance,” Rick Smith said. “These conditions existed for a long time and nothing was done to remediate it, as far as I’m aware of.”

Wick said the county is responsible for maintaining the road. But he said other areas affected by the slide are on private property.

Residents were told they had to hire a geologist to assess the hillside’s stability as a condition for being allowed back home. The firm they selected - RGH Geotechnical Consultants in Santa Rosa - quoted them a price of between $10,000 and $14,000 to do the work, which spread among residents could total as much as $2,000 per household. It’s unclear whether residents might be eligible for potential monies released by government state-of-emergency declarations.

A company representative did not return phone messages this week.

Wick said nine redwoods and Douglas firs are being recommended for removal or topping off to reduce the risk of the trees toppling over and damaging property. The work could substantially raise out-of-pocket costs for property owners.

“There’s families that are paying for lodging elsewhere and they’re getting no more help. It’s a hardship,” said Payne, who has been staying with a friend. “I don’t know how long they can continue on.”

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 707-521-5336 or

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