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Sonoma County, Santa Rosa weigh how to spend bulk of PG&E wildfire settlements

Before the deadly and destructive 2017 wildfires, Ben Miller was already a model homeowner. He didn’t need a wake-up call to know that living in the wooded northern outskirts of Santa Rosa meant more work around his property to safeguard it from wildfire.

By his estimate, his family spent as much as $10,000 a year clearing brush around their Mark West Springs canyon home. Still, the Tubbs fire caught hold in the area amid fierce Diablo winds, reducing the their place to ash.

That was a shock. And the next year, when the Camp fire destroyed the town of Paradise in 2018 was “horrifying,” said Miller, 56, a former money manager turned grape grower.

Then came 2019.

“The Kincade fire, when we saw that, by the third year, I really panicked,” Miller said, referring to the largest fire in Sonoma County’s history. “I was like, ‘This is our full-time job now. We have to do whatever it takes to make this thing (their new home) defensible.”

As the Millers and thousands of other Sonoma County families continue to rebuild and reclaim properties scorched over the past three years, many are looking to the two largest local governments — Sonoma County and Santa Rosa — to fund more aggressive fire prevention work to fortify neighborhoods against future blazes.

Some have banded together and called for a coordinated campaign of brush clearing and fire breaks at strategic points that would give firefighters a better chance at turning back flames. It is costly work that few property owners, let alone fire agencies, have been able to manage at a level that makes a difference.

But the $149 million PG&E paid to the county — and the $95 million that went to Santa Rosa — to settle claims from the 2017 fires is seen by those fire survivors as the kind of cash that could jump-start a more meaningful program. Bigger investments with money could solidify efforts that have been piecemeal — fragmented by land ownership and funding puzzles that often rely on year-to-year grants.

“The wildfire survivors I’ve known, that we’ve worked with, feel very confident that our community leaders understand where this money came from, and where it should go,” said Brad Sherwood, a Tubbs fire survivor and co-founder of the Larkfield Resilience Fund.

The group produced a documentary featuring Miller and three other wildfire victims as part of an effort to lobby local officials to set aside a large share of the settlement money for fire prevention work.

Already, the Board of Supervisors has allocated $25 million of its payout for those purposes, though it won’t be until March that the county decides how that money should be spent.

The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday is set to focus its discussion on up to $60 million in recommended spending on road and transportation upgrades.

Fire survivors, while acknowledging the merits of other community needs, say that the reserved funds are still not enough.

“More than $25 million is needed for vegetation management,” said Sherwood, who has rebuilt his home in the Larkfield area and works as a spokesman for Sonoma Water. “The PG&E funding should be spent on efforts to save lives through vegetation management.”

The issue is returning Tuesday to both the Board of Supervisors and Santa Rosa City Council, where decisions will shape how much is set aside for competing projects and services.

For both governments, tension exists between the demand for some near-term action to improve public safety and the call to invest in a broader set of public needs — affordable housing, road upgrades and utilities — that have been battered by repeated wildfires. Altogether, the county tallied more than $220 million in damages and costs related to its response to the 2017 wildfires.

Supervisor James Gore, whose north county district burned in 2017 and 2019, largely agrees with the call by fire survivors, while citing the tension at the heart of settlement spending.

“I want as much of the money as possible to go to pre-defeating future fires, but we need a pot that goes for resilient infrastructure — in all areas,” Gore said Monday.

He said, however, it would be unwise to spend tens of millions of dollars on quick fixes that would have a shelf life of three or fewer years.

Santa Rosa council members have held several meetings since the city received its $95 million in July, reviewing at least $42 million in unfunded repairs and rebuilding projects for public infrastructure and looking at the potential to put $10 million or so toward affordable housing.

The council’s Tuesday meeting will focus on wildfire preparedness, and city staff have come up with a wish list with a whopping price tag: $355.3 million in one-time spending on city and regional fire prevention projects. The tally includes $15 million to rebuild and relocate a burned Fountaingrove fire station; $88 million to improve evacuation routes in high-risk areas such as Oakmont, the Chanate Road area and Petaluma Hill Road; and $100 million alone split evenly between similar efforts along Fountaingrove Parkway and Highway 12 near Oakmont.

Also on the wish list: $4 million in extra annual staffing costs to hire 18 more firefighters and three new battalion chiefs and $5.25 million for a comprehensive brush management program over five years.

The priorities emerged from a survey earlier this year that involved thousands of city residents.

“We overwhelmingly heard one message: I don’t want to be afraid for four months of the year,” Mayor Chris Rogers wrote in a Facebook post. “While we won’t be able to fund the whole thing out of the settlement fund, we will be able to start prioritizing the implementation.”

In the documentary featuring fire survivors, Ann DuBay, who lost her home in the Tubbs fire, spoke in favor of bolstered county and individual prevention efforts.

“The county has an incredible opportunity to make generational change,” said DuBay, who works as a Sonoma Water spokeswoman. “Every property owner knows that they need to take care of their own properties, but we need help.”

The film was funded through a grant from the Rebuild NorthBay Foundation, started by Sonoma developer and lobbyist Darius Anderson, managing member of Sonoma Media Investments, which owns the The Press Democrat.

A budget shortfall earlier this led supervisors to tap nearly $27 million of the settlement to avert layoffs and shore up a revenues rocked by the pandemic-induced recession. They put another $10 million into affordable housing efforts.

If the board agrees to spend $60 million on infrastructure improvements, it will have $27.2 million left.

Gore said none of the survivors in his district are asking for the county to shoulder the entire burden for vegetation management. Much of the onus will still be on residents, even if the county agrees to help in some areas.

“I know it’s hard — spending money,” Gore said. “But we can’t all afford to go up in smoke … Some of this stuff has to be tough love. Because something’s got to change.”

Fire survivors, however, say an expansion local spending on wildfire prevention, including brush management, but also home hardening and education related to both is the best way to honor the awful toll of losses, including 24 lives in the county in and nearly 6,000 homes.

“I don’t want anyone to have to experience the pain and suffering we went through in our wildfire, and we don’t want to see one more life lost – one more injury,” said Sherwood. “It’s why, for a lot of us, it’s really quite emotional. We had lives lost all around us.”

Staff Writer Will Schmitt contributed to this story. You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or tyler.silvy@pressdemocrat.com.

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