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Survivors of Camp fire and North Bay fires tread shared path to recovery

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Paradise resident Kyla Awalt nudged Charles Brooks’ arm during a meeting of fire survivors earlier this year in Sonoma County. The two had driven three hours from their fire-leveled town in the Sierra Nevada foothills to listen to people from Coffey Park, Larkfield, Wikiup and other Santa Rosa communities burned in the 2017 North Bay wildfires talk about the ways they’ve banded together to withstand calamity and its aftermath.

Through recovery groups like Coffey Strong, local fire survivors have advocated for one another, pushed for better services from government agencies, negotiated better pricing on materials and, mostly, supported each other through the relentless logistics that come with losing everything.

Brooks recalled Awalt’s prod that day and what she whispered next: “We need this.”

California’s two most destructive and deadly wildfires — the 2018 Camp fire in Butte County and the 2017 Tubbs fire that burned from Calistoga into Santa Rosa — left tens of thousands of people without homes, forcing many into roles they never imagined for themselves.

The shared experience has strengthened and forged ties between two places 160 miles apart. Both communities are rebuilding while withstanding a new type of hardship: planned power shut-offs aimed to curb the risk of catastrophic wildfire and the subsequent loss of cellphone service, a lifeline for many.

“We’re going through that together, too. It’s like we’re connected at the hip,” Paradise City Councilman Mike Zuccolillo said.

The firestorm that broke out across Northern California in 2017 was shocking in its massive scale. A half-dozen major fires destroyed nearly 8,500 structures in the region and killed 44 people in four counties. The Tubbs fire alone destroyed 4,650 homes, most in Sonoma County, and took 22 lives.

“There had been no fire like ours before,” said Jeff Okrepkie, who lost his home in Coffey Park and later helped create the neighborhood recovery group Coffey Strong.

One year later, on the morning of Nov. 8, 2018, Coffey Park residents gathered with Supervisor James Gore and other local officials to break ground on a new wall for the community. Across the Sacramento Valley in the Sierra foothills, residents in Paradise were fleeing for their lives.

Helped town prepare

The Camp fire destroyed 14,000 homes in the forested foothill communities east of Chico in Butte County. Ninety five percent of Paradise was destroyed.

All five City Council members, the police chief and the county supervisor for the area lost their homes. The death toll would climb to 85. The week after the Camp fire erupted, government employees from Sonoma County filled the emergency operations center for the still-burning blaze, bringing fresh knowledge about what happens during a major fire. Santa Rosa Assistant City Manager David Guhin took the place of his counterpart in Paradise, who had lost his home and needed rest and time to care for his family.

“We were really careful not to say, ‘Here’s what you should do,’ because their community, their government structure, the scope of their fire was so dramatically different,” Guhin said.

But some things were the same. When a rainstorm came two weeks into the still-burning Camp fire, as it had with the Tubbs, Guhin knew they should take immediate measures to shore up storm drains because that below-ground infrastructure was likely damaged if not totally destroyed, creating major risks for sinkholes.

They helped prepare the town for the likelihood the drinking water would be contaminated and toxic, as happened in Fountaingrove. They brought copies of city policies and emergency ordinances developed since the fires, as well as mapping and permitting tools, to provide scripts to use when creating their own recovery plans, Guhin said.

“We knew all too well what they were going through. The last thing we wanted to do was not be there with them,” Guhin said.

By late November, a lighted and decorated noble fir tree stood at the brick entrance sign leading into Paradise. It was a gift from Coffey Strong in Santa Rosa. Butte County Board of Supervisors Chairman Steve Lambert, who grew up on his family’s ranch in Schellville, was visiting Sonoma County Oct. 23 when the Kincade fire broke out in The Geysers.

Lambert recalled watching the smoke rising the next day off those remote ridges in the Mayacamas Mountains, where fires are common but have often been contained before doing greater damage.

At that time, power was out in much of Butte County and Sonoma County — and across much of Northern California — as a result of PG&E’s planned power shutoff aimed at preventing wildfires. Lambert was hearing from people in both places, frustrated that without power they couldn’t pump water from their wells.

Over the next week, Lambert would hear that losses from the Kincade fire hit people in his life, such as his longtime friends in the LaFranchi family at Oak Ridge Angus and his cousin the contractor who was just about done on a house built on property that burned in 2017. In the Kincade fire, it was overrun by fire again.

Before 2017, Lambert’s two home counties, Sonoma and Butte, had much in common: Both boast deep agricultural roots, a pair of state universities, a plethora of craft breweries and bountiful natural resources. They now share neighborhoods reduced to rubble, communities inundated each fall with wildfire smoke and an arduous recovery unfolding slowly. Plus the growing threat of rampant wildfires and widespread power outages.

“It affects everybody,” Lambert said.

Speaking out as one

While the Kincade fire burned in Sonoma County, Zuccolillo and local government leaders from the North Bay traveled to Washington, D.C., with community leaders to press representatives with the Federal Communications Commission and other agencies to adjust policies to protect people from the consequences of wildfires and outages.

Sonoma County representatives were slated to attend but had to cancel because of the emergency unfolding with the fire and mass evacuations.

But Zuccolillo said they could speak for one another because of all that has been shared and learned from the experience of the past two years. There was added power speaking out together, he said.

“I think we made an impression,” Zuccolillo said.

On a morning in mid-October, dozens of people gathered at Paradise Community Park wearing blue T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Love Paradise.”

The Love Paradise campaign has been an annual volunteer event for several years. Weeks before the Camp fire, they had planted hundreds of daffodil bulbs along the roads — where cheerful yellow blooms appeared last spring, a sign of hope amid charred trees and burned lots.

Joelle Chinnock, a humanitarian aid worker with Paradise Adventist Church, helped put on the recent event to bring people together to clear trash from the town’s main drag, Skyway Road, and the Memorial Trailway bike path.

The group’s next project will be to build and distribute 200 sheds for people living and rebuilding in the burn zone — an effort modeled upon a similar undertaking in Coffey Park.

“When you lose 18,000 structures in a fire, the needs are so vast — so vast,” said Chinnock, whose home wasn’t fully destroyed but the damage was so significant she and her family have only just recently been able to move back.

The shed project was based on a giveaway organized by Rebuilding Our Community Sonoma County, a recovery nonprofit formed after the fires. They corralled volunteers at Piner High School to build about 100 sheds that were given to fire survivors.

The group’s co-chairman Adam Peacocke, formerly pastor with City Life Fellowship in Santa Rosa, said that many like him have traveled to Butte County out of a strong sense of connection with communities facing years of recovery after fires. Peacocke is part of a network of recovery groups across California that have regular conference calls to share questions, support and resources.

“Whenever I see someone from Paradise calling, from Chico calling, you do everything you can to pick up that phone,” Peacocke said.

One month after the Camp fire started, Sonoma County fire survivors, builders, insurance agents and others traveled to Chico. They had emotional meetings with survivors of the Camp fire, who had not yet been allowed to return to their burned or standing homes.

In the banquet hall of a downtown Chico hotel, Paradise resident Linda Horton Lyons, 62, took notes from the accounts shared by the visitors and wrote down their phone numbers.

She recalled watching the news with horror in 2017 when the Tubbs fire was burning in Sonoma County.

Her daughter, Jennifer Horton Hong, lives in Bodega Bay and owns the Dutch Bros. Coffee on Mendocino Avenue in Santa Rosa. She visited after the fire and snapped photos of a leveled neighborhood patrolled by workers in white contamination suits.

“I took pictures not knowing that we’d see the white hazmat workers in our own community sifting through the rubble,” Lyons said.

She and her husband lost their home, and in the year since that visit last year she’s reached back out to people in Santa Rosa for advice.

“They can steer us to the resources and pitfalls,” Lyons said. “They’re giving us encouragement to keep on going.”

Coffey Strong and other community leaders have returned again and again to Butte County, holding seminars about debris removal and what fire survivors need to know about the PG&E bankruptcy case and claims process.

‘Be your own advocate’

Santa Rosa engineer Francois Piccin recalled sitting in a car in Paradise last spring, a town he knew well because his in-laws lived there for 20 years.

He sat next to a woman who was still reeling from losing her home and community. He was shocked by the scale of destruction.

Piccin, who lost his Wikiup home to the Tubbs fire, said he tried to assure her that the feeling of overwhelm was universal among fire survivors. For the better part of a year after the Tubbs, he said he felt like a zombie.

Last week, he stood behind a table at the Healdsburg Community Center offering support for survivors of the Kincade fire and promoting the block captain program to help communities coalesce.

“I would love to go back to Paradise because, to me, if we can do something to help, we should,” Piccin said.

The March meeting that inspired Brooks and Awalt took place as hundreds of trucks were still traveling in and out of Paradise, Magalia, Concow and Pulga each day to haul away the debris.

On the drive back from Sonoma County — through a miserable rainstorm — Awalt was on the phone enlisting neighbors and friends to start a similar network of residents for Paradise. Awalt, whose home was one of the few left standing in her decimated community, said they needed a way for thousands of displaced fire survivors to stay connected and motivate each other to rebuild.

“You have to be your own advocate — that’s the biggest lesson they drummed into our heads from day one,” said Brooks.

A year later, Awalt, has built a community network called the Camp Fire Zone Project modeled after the block captain network in Sonoma County. The captains attend community dinners and other events, visit with residents of standing homes and parked trailers on burned properties, and have helped start mini roadside libraries.

Getting crucial support

Awalt said she keeps in touch with several Sonoma County fire survivors through text messages and social media.

She said they have inspired a network she hopes will help her community, displaced en masse, rebuild.

“That one person that can be the voice of hundreds,” Awalt said. “That’s what we were missing. People were lost, and we all had the same questions.”

Brooks, a former traveling salesman for a reusable garbage bag manufacturer, is now executive director of Rebuild Paradise, a nonprofit he started in the fire’s aftermath to spur his community’s recovery. He said he’s received crucial support and advice from his counterparts leading the rebuild in the North Bay.

His group has sought to clarify complicated insurance questions for survivors, hosted homebuilders expositions and developed free floor plans to provide cost-effective home designs for those looking to rebuild.

“I’ve forged friendships, developed working relationships with people in Sonoma County — it’s truly fantastic,” Brooks said. “What it’s done for our community is help us put things into action faster and in meaningful ways.”

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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