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Wearing hard hats and holding gold-painted sledgehammers, elected officials and community leaders on Thursday celebrated the imminent replacement of nearly 3,000 feet of burned walls along the entrance to Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park neighborhood.

The charred and crumbling walls on both sides of Hopper Avenue have remained a symbol of the devastation wrought by a wildfire that tore through the northwest neighborhood 13 months ago, destroying more than 1,300 homes there.

But speakers Thursday said the damaged structures soon would be replaced by new walls that would welcome visitors back to a Coffey Park on its way to full restoration.

The new walls became possible through a collaboration that includes the Coffey Strong neighborhood group, city staff members, a nonprofit fire recovery organization and a collection of cleanup contractors, including a Florida company that donated $450,000 in cash.

Neighborhood volunteers not only picked a new wall design but also managed to get all 42 property owners along the barriers to agree in writing to let the project proceed.

“We’re grateful to be here and to be part of a project that we anticipate will be a long-term symbol of the resilience and recovery in this community,” said Brittany Perkins Castillo, CEO of Florida-based AshBritt Environmental, the project’s major donor.

The flames that ravaged Coffey Park were part of a series of North Bay wildfires that claimed 40 lives and destroyed nearly 6,200 homes in October 2017.

This year, the neighborhood of mostly tract homes has become the center of rebuilding in Sonoma County. At least 6 in 10 property owners there have applied to rebuild, and more than 500 have begun construction.

However, the wall project had appeared a daunting task, not only because of the cost but also because the structures belonged to each property owner who lived along them. Left to their own devices, those homeowners each could have decided how to tear down and replace their section of wall, whether with masonry, chain link fences or other materials.

“There was going to be no uniformity to it,” said Jeff Okrepkie, a founder and former president of Coffey Strong. The walls amount to “a gateway to Coffey Park,” he said, and finding a single solution benefits not just the 42 property owners but the entire community.

That solution became possible when AshBritt, a major contractor hired to clean up fire-damaged properties in the region, contacted the Rebuild NorthBay Foundation last year. The nonprofit foundation was founded by Darius Anderson, managing member of Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat.

Jennifer Gray Thompson, Rebuild NorthBay’s executive director, said the company’s representatives “asked a simple question, which is, ‘If we gave you half a million dollars, what would you do with it?’”

The answer was a “no brainer,” she said, because city and community leaders were seeking a way to replace the Hopper walls.

Demolition on the old walls is slated to begin late this month. Two contractors, Wolff Contracting of Santa Rosa and Mountain G Engineering of Folsom, will knock the structures down and haul the rubble away at no charge.

Pruitt Industrial Park in Windsor will accept the rubble and dispose of it at no cost.

The combination of cash and in-kind contributions will total nearly $650,000.

The new walls will be 8 feet tall and built from a steel-truss and foam system that is covered with concrete. Construction is expected to be completed in early 2019.

Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey said the presence of so many community leaders Thursday sent a message to neighbors that “your community is with Coffey Park.”

Minutes before he and other officials pounded the wall with their sledgehammers, Coursey suggested there was significance that the fire occurred 13 months ago.

“Thirteen is an unlucky number for this wall,” he quipped, “because it’s coming down.”

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 707-521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @rdigit.

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