Sean Burns’ daily routine has long included a no-hurry mix of business and banter as he greets customers at his Mail & More Store in northwest Santa Rosa.
But after losing his Coffey Park home and fighting to save the nearby shopping center from a deadly wildfire, the 53-year-old Navy veteran finds that life and business have changed.
Revenues from his Hopper Avenue store dropped 25 percent for two months after the October fires swept across the northern edge of Santa Rosa. Business insurance will cover some of those losses.
A greater challenge, Burns said, involves working in the midst of a neighborhood where flames consumed more than 1,200 homes and at least a dozen businesses.
“It reminds me of it every two seconds,” he said of his store’s proximity to the destruction. “That’s what gets to be a little tough after a while.”
Coffey Park was ravaged by the Tubbs fire, part of a series of wildfires that claimed 24 lives and destroyed more than 5,100 homes in Sonoma County. In Santa Rosa, the flames burned 3,000 homes and damaged or destroyed 29 businesses.
The tract subdivisions of Coffey Park lie next to an expansive commercial and industrial area that includes a mix of manufacturers, storage centers and retailers, including tire and car businesses, fast-food restaurants and fitness centers.
Hopper Avenue and Piner Road are two key entryways to the residential area. Both have restaurants and stores that neighbors have frequented for years.
Bill’s Market, which sits on Hopper a few doors down from Mail & More, is considered a corner grocery store, said Jeff Okrepkie, chairman of the Coffey Strong neighborhood rebuilding group.
Before their home burned, Okrepkie and his wife, Stephanie, used to go for dinner near the market at Luigi’s Restaurant because the food was good and the staff didn’t care if their 2-year-old son “made a big old mess.” Also, he said, many neighbors enjoyed stopping in and meeting friends at the taprooms of three nearby breweries.
“It’s something that contributes to the sense of neighborhood or community,” he said of the range of local merchants.
At the small shopping center on Hopper, four of the owners or workers lost homes in the fires. In the early hours of the disaster, many of its business people worried the flames had claimed their shops and restaurants.
Burns, whose neatly trimmed beard has grown a little grayer during 27 years at the center, manages the property and has an interest in it with his family. On the morning of the fire, he was unable to save his home on San Marcos Drive, so he next drove to the squat, rectangular collection of nine storefronts.
For the next 15 hours he worked with a neighbor and family members, spraying down the center’s flat roofs and pouring 5-gallon buckets of water on smoldering bark chips in landscaping across the street. Other store owners at the center credited those steps with keeping their businesses safe.
The fire jumped the freeway and burned along the north side of Hopper, damaging or destroying restaurants, a storage unit facility and an apartment complex before spreading into the single-family homes of Coffey Park.
Read all of the PD's fire coverage here