Uncertainty looms a month after devastating Sonoma County fires

One month ago today, the face of Sonoma County changed forever.

Monster winds stoked a series of deadly wildfires that roared into Santa Rosa and the Sonoma Valley, surprising sleeping residents and wiping out whole neighborhoods from Fountaingrove to Coffey Park.

By the time the devastating blazes were contained nearly three weeks later, they had charred more than 114,000 acres, destroyed 5,300 homes and killed 23 people in Sonoma County, becoming the worst wildfires in state history.

Damage is estimated at $3 billion.

Now, with the smoke cleared and recovery underway, many are still trying to cope with the magnitude of the disaster while growing increasingly anxious about the future.

Key questions still remain about the night the firestorm erupted: What caused the fires? And why were some people not warned before flames reached their neighborhoods?

Equally important questions loom in the coming weeks and months: Where will displaced people go? How many will return to Sonoma County? How long will it take to rebuild and how much will it cost? What will become of the local real estate, tourism and job markets?

Ben Stone, head of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board, expects a temporary loss of workers and visitors. But he predicted they will return and the economy will strengthen, as new and possibly better housing goes up.

“I think the economy will come back pretty quickly simply because we’re getting so much insurance money,” said Stone, who lost his Coffey Park home of 29 years. “All that will help bring the area back.”

Randon Way resident Louis Pell also was optimistic despite losing the uninsured home he shared with his mother, girlfriend and daughter, Lilly, 8. The 28-year-old pool contractor said he would rebuild with help from friends in the trades.

“I’m a young guy and I still have options about what I’m going to do,” said Pell, who played tetherball in front of his leveled home Tuesday. “I have time on my side.”

Others said it is too soon to tell just a month after the fires.

Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey said Tuesday he’s not speculating about the future but is instead “taking small bites” and focusing on the day-to-day tasks in front of him.

“I’m not celebrating the anniversary,” Coursey said. “At times it feels like it’s been forever since a month ago and other times it feels like yesterday.”

Blackened hills and leveled neighborhoods are the most visible reminders of the Tubbs fire, named for a road in Calistoga where it is believed to have started about 9:45 p.m. on Oct. 8.

Fanned by winds up to 78 mph, it raced a distance of about 15 miles into Santa Rosa, nearly mirroring the destructive path of the Hanly fire 53 years earlier. Thousands were forced to evacuate with little or no notice, as flames incinerated neighborhoods in the hills and valley floors, jumping Highway 101 into Coffey Park. Some were trapped while trying to escape and burned to death.

“When you take into consideration that it burned from Calistoga to Santa Rosa in little over four hours, it was pretty amazing,” said Bret Gouvea, Cal Fire’s incident commander from Oct. 8 to Oct. 27

At the same time, six separate fires ignited along the Sonoma Valley, forcing more people out and burning more homes. They eventually merged into one big inferno.

About 6,700 firefighters responded from across the state and as far away as Australia, battling flames from the ground and the air for the next 19 days. By the time it was over, the combined firestorms in Sonoma County consumed 178 square miles.

“There are parts of the fires that looked like an aerial bomb was dropped,” Gouvea said. “Just mass devastation.”

The fires generated 2,269 missing persons reports. Over the next four weeks, teams of detectives chased leads and ran down tips. Today, they have accounted for all but 27 people, sheriff’s Sgt. Spencer Crum said.

The remains of those who died were also pulled from the rubble. Of the 23 killed, five have yet to be identified and their remains are undergoing DNA testing, Crum said.

Within days of the fires, speculation about the cause centered on PG&E power lines, which have been deemed responsible for other blazes in California, including the 2015 Butte fire in Amador County.

Cal Fire is examining several theories as it attempts to determine what started the Sonoma County fires. PG&E has declined to speculate about a cause and said it is cooperating fully with investigators. In the absence of an official finding, at least 10 lawsuits with more than 100 plaintiffs had been filed claiming poorly maintained power lines were responsible for the disaster. Attorneys from across the country have converged on Santa Rosa to host informational meetings about mass fire litigation.

Critics are also questioning why the county didn’t use a government alert system that could have sent advance warning to any cellphone within a certain distance of cell towers.

The county has responded that it was a deliberate effort to minimize panic, saying authorities were worried the system would notify all cellphone holders in the county.

But federal emergency officials said it is possible to limit the calls by geography, as was done in Lake County before dawn Oct. 9 to warn people in an area of Clearlake threatened by a wildfire.

And firefighters are still chasing “smokes,” or smoldering trees and roots that put up columns of white smoke.

Every day, somewhere in the vast burn areas, calls come to dispatchers from concerned people seeing smoke. On-duty firefighters respond. On Tuesday, Cal Fire and Bennett Valley firefighters had two smoke-check calls in Trione-Annadel State Park, hiking to the upper ridges of the park to find the smoldering vegetation and douse it.

Cal Fire Capt. Garrett White said it is to be expected in the aftermath of such major wildfires.

“We have calls all over the place. There’s just going to be stuff smoking for a long time,” White said.

Staff Writers Randi Rossmann and Julie Johnson contributed to this story.

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