Two sisters. Two paths to recovery.
Susan Komar and Lynn Van Fleit each lost a home last fall when the Tubbs fire ravaged northern Santa Rosa.
Six months later, Komar and her husband, Chris, said they plan this year to start rebuilding their home in Coffey Park. But Van Fleit said she can’t afford to replace her house near the former Sweet T’s restaurant in Fountaingrove, a recently purchased residence she was planning to move into the very week the fire struck.
“Who would have thought our two neighborhoods would become synonymous with devastation?” said Van Fleit. She said her insurance coverage won’t cover the cost to rebuild, so she’s put money down for a new home under construction off Piner Road in northwest Santa Rosa.
The sisters’ story is emblematic of the saga faced by county residents who lost nearly 5,300 homes in the fires of October.
Six months after the historic disaster, many stand poised to rebuild this year. Others have decided they can’t or won’t return. And still others await answers that will determine their futures.
“We’re in the limbo space between intent to rebuild and able to rebuild,” said Jeff Okrepkie, chairman of the Coffey Strong neighborhood group.
Komar and Van Fleit exemplify another truth for fire survivors: Many are helping one another cope with the disaster’s upheaval. Often such care and support has come in the context of neighbor helping neighbor, but family members certainly have played a role, too.
Komar, 70, is the daughter of an unwed mother and grew up as an adopted child. After searching for family for almost four decades, she located Van Fleit six years ago living in Virginia. Now, the two live as retirees in the same city and support each other while recovering from the most destructive wildfires in state history.
Their cause remains under state investigation as lawsuits from fire survivors continue to mount against Pacific Gas & Electric Co., which reported damaged power poles and downed power lines it owns in areas near the origins of the biggest blazes, including the Tubbs fire that started north of Calistoga and spread into Santa Rosa, leveling entire neighborhoods. PG&E officials have said the utility is cooperating with state investigators.
Altogether, the infernos that began on the night of Oct. 8 in the North Bay claimed 40 lives and destroyed 6,200 homes and another 1,800 structures. Insured losses total nearly $10 billion.
Twenty-four people died in Sonoma County, and more residences were destroyed here than were built in the county in the past seven years.
The worst destruction occurred in Santa Rosa, which lost more than 3,000 homes. Most of those houses once stood in the hillside neighborhood of Fountaingrove and in the more modest flatland subdivisions west on Highway 101 in Coffey Park.
Six months later, most of the debris has been hauled away and fire survivors look forward to a new phase: the acceleration of rebuilding efforts. Contractors and others said several hundred homes should rise in the burn areas this spring and summer.
Even so, few predict a smooth road ahead.
“It should be clear to everybody six months in that this is going to be a struggle,” said Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey. “But I think people are willing to struggle.”
Awaiting water fix
Already the challenges for fire survivors have included finding temporary residences in a tight housing market, compiling detailed lists of all the possessions they lost and finding a contractor to rebuild their homes.
One of the most costly obstacles ahead involves replacing a contaminated section of the city’s water system that serves 350 homes in Fountaingrove - a project estimated to cost roughly $30 million to $40 million. City officials believe the fire’s intense heat released the cancer-causing hydrocarbon benzene from components in the water system, and a drop in pressure pulled benzene, ash and other contaminants into the water lines.
At a council meeting last month, city staff said it could take more than two years to replace those lines. Property owners complained they can’t wait that long and noted they will lose insurance money for temporary housing within two years of the fires.
Coursey said he is urging residents not to consider the update at the March meeting “the last word.” Council members have urged staff to “explore every option to shorten that time frame and find other options.”
City water officials on Thursday released a statement that they are making progress on possible solutions, including a temporary water supply that could be made available concurrently with the water system repairs. That approach could allow those who rebuild in the contamination zone to more quickly occupy new homes.
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