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Santa Rosa mulls massive price tag for fire readiness as county taps PG&E settlement for roads

Presented with an overwhelming number of ways to spend $95 million in PG&E settlement funds on public services, the Santa Rosa City Council opted to ask fire officials to pick projects that would be the most important and effective at keeping the city safe following a trio of devastating wildfires in recent years.

City staff came to a Tuesday council meeting with a list of $476 million in potential projects that could be advanced with the PG&E money, including work to increase wildfire resiliency, improve evacuation routes and rebuild parts of Santa Rosa that burned in the 2017 Tubbs fire.

As the total of City Hall’s list equaled more than five times the amount of the settlement payout, council members all but threw up their hands and asked the Fire Department to come back with a narrower catalog of projects that could give the city the most bang for its buck.

“It’s a daunting task for the council to make any kind of decisions,” said Councilman John Sawyer.

The city has no firm timeline for spending the funds and isn’t likely to make final decisions until after it meets in February to formally agree on goals and priorities. But the Fire Department did tip its hand Tuesday as to some potential uses of the funds that it may recommend sooner than later.

Deputy Fire Chief Scott Westrope outlined how the city could spend $8 million on two five-year programs, one geared toward vegetation management and another to craft a strategic plan to make the city more resistant to wildfire. This would be on top of the community wildfire protection plan the City Council unanimously adopted in September.

The vegetation management effort, which has a high level of support among community members, would include clear standards for defensible space, brush clearing along evacuation routes and community education, Westrope said.

“That is very important to us,” said Westrope, who is in the running to take the city’s top firefighting job after Chief Tony Gossner’s impending retirement next week, a departure that was announced in Tuesday’s meeting. “It’s something that we’ve been lacking for a long time and that we’ve seen through the Tubbs, the Kincade and the Glass fire is vitally important to protecting the community.”

Altogether, Sonoma County has lost nearly 6,000 homes in wildfires over the past three years. Santa Rosa took the biggest hit, with nearly 3,000 destroyed in the 2017 fires that led to settlement with PG&E. Another 334 homes on the city’s eastern flank were destroyed this fall in the Glass fire, the cause of which remains under investigation.

Westrope outlined some of the Fire Department’s longer-term goals: rebuilding a permanent fire station to serve the Fountaingrove area; building two new fire stations in northeast and southeast Santa Rosa; and moving two existing firehouses. Ultimately, this “chess game” is expected to lead to better fire coverage citywide, Westrope said.

Down the road, the city also is mulling $188 million worth of evacuation route improvements, said Assistant City Manager Jason Nutt, who oversees transportation and public works. That’s in addition to smaller projects such as building a permanent emergency operations center — a hub Santa Rosa has activated in city conference rooms 10 times over the past two years, he noted.

Since fires do not respect local government boundaries, preventing future wildfires will take cooperative muscle, city officials said.

“We’ve got to continue to break down these silos and work as a region for the protection and safety of our constituents,” said City Manager Sean McGlynn.

While Santa Rosa has been steadily meeting over the past six months to determine the best use for its $95 million in wildfire reparations, Sonoma County has already made decisions on how to use its own $149 million in PG&E settlement funds.

The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday tapped about $60 million in settlement cash for proposed infrastructure and emergency preparedness upgrades, including five Emergency Management satellite offices to be spread strategically throughout the county.

With a price tag of $3.25 million, those spare, prefabricated metal buildings, would house emergency supplies, but would also serve as local incident management sites, and feature energy generation and storage capabilities.

The bulk of spending approved by supervisors Tuesday was for roads, where the board allocated $21.4 million for projects that FEMA has so far denied, and another $20 million in surface repair projects that will be presented to the board in May.

A third tier of infrastructure investments, totaling $4.26 million, would focus on communications infrastructure, as well as a plan to buy into a state utilities program that would enable the county to underground a portion of its most high-risk electric lines.

The board has already spent $26.8 million of the settlement to backfill the county’s general fund. It also allocated $10 million for affordable housing and set aside $25 million for vegetation management. County officials plan to spend more than $2 million studying the best options for brush clearance and firebreak work before taking a deeper look at project recommendations in March. As it stands, the remainder of the county settlement money after Tuesday is $26.7 million.

Tuesday’s hearing came more than three years after the 2017 fires destroyed more than 5,300 homes in the county. Supervisors acknowledged that funding wasn’t enough to repair all of the physical damage, let alone emotional scars. Twenty-four people died in Sonoma County in the 2017 firestorm.

“We will never be adequately compensated for the grief,” said Supervisor Susan Gorin, who is still working to rebuild the home she lost that year in the Nuns fire. “Thank you to all of our neighborhood captains, block captains — the voices of change and preparation. We could not have gotten here without your passion and advocacy.”

You can reach Staff Writers Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com and Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or tyler.silvy@pressdemocrat.com.

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