Survivors of Camp fire and North Bay fires tread shared path to recovery
Paradise resident Kyla Awalt nudged Charles Brooks' arm during a meeting of fire survivors earlier this year in Sonoma County. The two had driven three hours from their fire-leveled town in the Sierra Nevada foothills to listen to people from Coffey Park, Larkfield, Wikiup and other Santa Rosa communities burned in the 2017 North Bay wildfires talk about the ways they've banded together to withstand calamity and its aftermath.
Through recovery groups like Coffey Strong, local fire survivors have advocated for one another, pushed for better services from government agencies, negotiated better pricing on materials and, mostly, supported each other through the relentless logistics that come with losing everything.
Brooks recalled Awalt's prod that day and what she whispered next: “We need this.”
California's two most destructive and deadly wildfires - the 2018 Camp fire in Butte County and the 2017 Tubbs fire that burned from Calistoga into Santa Rosa - left tens of thousands of people without homes, forcing many into roles they never imagined for themselves.
The shared experience has strengthened and forged ties between two places 160 miles apart. Both communities are rebuilding while withstanding a new type of hardship: planned power shut-offs aimed to curb the risk of catastrophic wildfire and the subsequent loss of cellphone service, a lifeline for many.
“We're going through that together, too. It's like we're connected at the hip,” Paradise City Councilman Mike Zuccolillo said.
The firestorm that broke out across Northern California in 2017 was shocking in its massive scale. A half-dozen major fires destroyed nearly 8,500 structures in the region and killed 44 people in four counties. The Tubbs fire alone destroyed 4,650 homes, most in Sonoma County, and took 22 lives.
“There had been no fire like ours before,” said Jeff Okrepkie, who lost his home in Coffey Park and later helped create the neighborhood recovery group Coffey Strong.
One year later, on the morning of Nov. 8, 2018, Coffey Park residents gathered with Supervisor James Gore and other local officials to break ground on a new wall for the community. Across the Sacramento Valley in the Sierra foothills, residents in Paradise were fleeing for their lives.
Helped town prepare
The Camp fire destroyed 14,000 homes in the forested foothill communities east of Chico in Butte County. Ninety five percent of Paradise was destroyed.
All five City Council members, the police chief and the county supervisor for the area lost their homes. The death toll would climb to 85. The week after the Camp fire erupted, government employees from Sonoma County filled the emergency operations center for the still-burning blaze, bringing fresh knowledge about what happens during a major fire. Santa Rosa Assistant City Manager David Guhin took the place of his counterpart in Paradise, who had lost his home and needed rest and time to care for his family.
“We were really careful not to say, ‘Here's what you should do,' because their community, their government structure, the scope of their fire was so dramatically different,” Guhin said.
But some things were the same. When a rainstorm came two weeks into the still-burning Camp fire, as it had with the Tubbs, Guhin knew they should take immediate measures to shore up storm drains because that below-ground infrastructure was likely damaged if not totally destroyed, creating major risks for sinkholes.
They helped prepare the town for the likelihood the drinking water would be contaminated and toxic, as happened in Fountaingrove. They brought copies of city policies and emergency ordinances developed since the fires, as well as mapping and permitting tools, to provide scripts to use when creating their own recovery plans, Guhin said.
“We knew all too well what they were going through. The last thing we wanted to do was not be there with them,” Guhin said.
By late November, a lighted and decorated noble fir tree stood at the brick entrance sign leading into Paradise. It was a gift from Coffey Strong in Santa Rosa. Butte County Board of Supervisors Chairman Steve Lambert, who grew up on his family's ranch in Schellville, was visiting Sonoma County Oct. 23 when the Kincade fire broke out in The Geysers.
Lambert recalled watching the smoke rising the next day off those remote ridges in the Mayacamas Mountains, where fires are common but have often been contained before doing greater damage.
At that time, power was out in much of Butte County and Sonoma County - and across much of Northern California - as a result of PG&E's planned power shutoff aimed at preventing wildfires. Lambert was hearing from people in both places, frustrated that without power they couldn't pump water from their wells.