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PD Editorial: Five years after Sonoma County’s firestorm

The Tubbs, Nuns and Pocket Fires reshaped Sonoma County’s physical landscape — and much more.|

Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

No one in Northern California needs to be reminded of this weekend’s significance.

Five years cannot erase memories of the immense wildfires that exploded across the region from the Sierra foothills to Redwood Valley as Oct. 8 ended and Oct. 9 began in 2017. In a matter of hours, the wind-driven infernos incinerated thousands of homes and claimed 44 lives.

Sonoma County was ground zero.

When dawn came on this date in 2017, entire neighborhoods were gone, and the sky was darkened by smoke. It was difficult to grasp the scope of destruction — 5,334 homes burned — and harder still to imagine how and when our community would return to normal.

The Tubbs, Nuns and Pocket fires reshaped Sonoma County’s physical landscape — and much more. The fires upended lives, tested our resilience and exposed stark vulnerabilities in our neighborhoods and open spaces, power supplies and evacuation warnings.

Five years later, about two-thirds of the burned homes have been rebuilt. Sonoma County is facilitating consolidation of small fire districts and volunteer fire departments into a better coordinated firefighting force, and Cal Fire has added hundreds of firefighters and purchased new aircraft, fire engines and bulldozers.

Updated weather forecasting capabilities allow advance deployment of resources to areas at elevated risk for wildfire.

However, state and local governments are still struggling with utility safety, forest and brush management, home hardening and insurers canceling coverage.

With wildfires in California and across the West getting even more intense and even less predictable, preparation and prevention will remain top priorities for the foreseeable future.

At the time, the Tubbs Fire — which started near Calistoga and burned all the way to Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park neighborhood — was ranked as the most destructive in California history. In the aftermath, a state emergency official said the cleanup was the largest since the Great Earthquake of 1906, which devastated San Francisco and Santa Rosa.

Tubbs was supplanted barely a year later by the Camp Fire in Butte County, and eight fires since then now appear on the Top 20 list, underscoring the constant risk of wildfire in an era of prolonged drought and extreme heat driven by climate change.

In recent days, as this melancholy anniversary approached, conversations inevitably have turned to homes that have been rebuilt and lots that still are vacant, people who left and people who stayed, and recollections of waking up in the middle of the night, surrounded by flames.

“It was the ringing of the landline that woke me … one thirty in the morning … who could be calling at this hour?” Michael M.J. Girard of Santa Rosa wrote in a letter that appears in Sunday’s paper. “As I fumbled for my slippers and opened the bedroom door, something felt extremely wrong. Opening the door from the hallway onto the kitchen, my eyes beheld our property and front porch ablaze.”

The back deck was burning too. Girard and his partner, Lynda, escaped with a bag already packed for a planned vacation and headed toward Ukiah, only to be turned back by the fire burning in Redwood Valley.

Five years later and living in their rebuilt home, Girard wrote, “Lynda and I will never erase from our memories the near brush with death.”

It’s safe to say he speaks for all of us who lived through the 2017 fires.

You can send letters to the editor to letters@pressdemocrat.com.

Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

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