Sonoma County RV campgrounds play role in housing fire recovery effort workers

The Alexander Valley RV Park & Campground is typically closed this time of the year, since no tourist wants to take a dip in the nearby Russian River. Temperatures usually drop to the 30s during flood season.

But this year it’s packed.

The facility near Healdsburg is being used to house temporary workers for ongoing cleanup in the aftermath of October’s wildfires that destroyed more than 5,100 structures in Sonoma County and killed 44 people throughout Northern California.

The campground, owned by the Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians, has housed about 40 recreational vehicles for the past six weeks as part of the effort by the Army Corps of Engineers to clear debris from residences gutted by the fires. Most people living at the campground work for ECC, a Burlingame-based company with a $240 million contract with the Corps that terminates around Jan. 1.

“I see this as more of a trend to alternatives in traditional housing,” said Ben Stone, executive director of the Sonoma Economic Development Board. “I think we are going to see a lot more of this.”

Indeed, campgrounds are among facilities such as tourist coastal housing, guest cottages and other spaces likely to play a role in not only housing displaced residents, but also the thousands of workers needed for rebuilding.

One economist has estimated it would take 6,300 annual workers three years to rebuild houses lost in the region.

The effort is being done with sensitivity to locals still looking for housing. For example, the contract the Corps signed with ECC and AshBritt Inc., the other lead contractor on initial cleanup efforts, stipulated that their out-of-town workers could not stay at hotels in North Coast counties affected by the fires in order to free up housing for residents as well as tourists, a major contributor in the local economy, said Corps spokesman Patrick Bloodgood.

Local officials have encouraged such flexibility. Sonoma County has relaxed its permit rules, while placing a moratorium on new vacation rentals and encouraging residents to live in RVs, if feasible.

In fact, motor homes have become the go-to source for temporary housing. That sector almost cratered during the Great Recession but has rebounded with a surge in national sales.

At the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, 25 families are being housed in RVs as part of a displaced housing program by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Chad Davis, the agency’s deputy housing task force lead. FEMA also recently signed a contract with the Corps to secure up to 70 RV spaces at its campground near Lake Mendocino for people displaced by the Redwood Valley fire.

And it’s not just contractors.

One local vineyard management company in Geyserville plans to use a motor home on its property for the family of an employee who lost their home in the fires.

The Alexander Valley campground offers a snapshot on how these facilities serve as a crucial link for the recovery efforts, especially for those from out of the area.

ECC is housing its out-of-the area workers at the campground and in rentals through Airbnb, said August Ochabauer, the company’s vice president of operations.

The company and its subcontractors oversee a workforce of 1,700 throughout Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and Lake counties, though only about 100 are from Texas, Virginia, Colorado, Florida and other states.

“We bring in people with previous experience working these kinds of projects,” said Ochabauer, who worked on the Hurricane Katrina cleanup in 2005.

The workers serve in supervisory roles, and typically work from 6 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., said Jay Holland, who oversees the campground for ECC, as well as ones in Mendocino and Napa counties.

As some ECC workers have begun to leave the area, they’re finally able to appreciate the area around them, he said.

“They’re like, ‘Oh my God, how beautiful it is to see this during the daylight.’?”

Bill Swindell

Business, Beer and Wine, The Press Democrat  

In the North Coast, we are surrounded by hundreds of wineries along with some of the best breweries, cidermakers and distillers. These industries produce an abundance of drinks as well as good stories – and those are what I’m interested in writing. I also keep my eye on our growing cannabis industry and other agricultural crops, which have provided the backbone for our food-and-wine culture for generations.

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