Santa Rosa reopens three devastated neighborhoods to residents

"We are all in the same club. We need to honor and love each other," says Dee Dee Bridges, left, after embracing Phyllis Miller as she passed by, during a community meeting at Santa Rosa High School in Santa Rosa, California, on Thursday, October 19, 2017. Both perfect strangers, Bridges and Miller each lost their homes in the Fountaingrove area when the Tubbs Fire decimated their neighborhood last week. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)


Three areas of Santa Rosa devastated by a deadly firestorm — Coffey Park and the Journey’s End and Orchard mobile home parks — will be reopened to residents Friday, Santa Rosa Police Chief Hank Schreeder announced at a community meeting Thursday night.

The three areas, nearly obliterated by the Tubbs fire 11 days ago and closed since then, will be open to residents only from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., the chief told a standing room-only crowd of more than 750 people in the Santa Rosa High School gymnasium.

Residents will be required to present identification at checkpoints staffed by law enforcement to enter the areas and must have passes allowing them to make return trips, Schreeder said.

Saturday, all entry restrictions at the two mobile home parks will be lifted, but Coffey Park will remain a controlled entry area. Sunday, Coffey Park will be open to the public.

The controlled-entry process today and Saturday at Coffey Park “is designed to allow only residents into their neighborhood so they have protected time to assess and grieve,” the city said in a press release Thursday night.

The release also said the city would have more information about the opening of the Fountaingrove neighborhood to residents this weekend.

Sheriff’s Capt. Mark Essick, speaking just before the chief, said he could not specify any fire areas that will be reopened in the county’s largely rural lands outside the nine cities.

“I don’t have an exact timeline for you,” he said, adding that in the next two days to a week there should be some reopenings.

Essick advised residents to check Nixle and the Sheriff’s Office Facebook page for information on reopening areas like Wikiup and Larkfield, which also lay in the path of the Tubbs fire as it roared into Sonoma County and Santa Rosa early on Oct. 9.

Reopening burned areas is a complex process, the two lawmen said, requiring thorough searches involving cadaver dogs, complete restoration of power, gas, water and telephone service, and elimination of all known hazards.

“There are extreme dangers in those areas,” Schreeder said, explaining the slow pace of reopening. “We need to get people in there safely.”

Earlier Thursday, about 225 people attended a similar community meeting at the Sonoma Veterans Building.

The Santa Rosa meeting, attended by a host of state legislators, county and city officials, began with a moment of silence for the 42 lives lost in the North Bay fires, but a restive crowd peppered officials with blunt questions about major streets that remain closed and the emergency notification process during the fast-moving fire’s pre-dawn hours.

Santa Rosa Fire Chief Tony Gossner said the killer fire started in Napa County and raced into Santa Rosa in four hours. A hastily assembled emergency operations center sent out evacuation notices to the Fountaingrove area, he said.

“Bull----,” yelled a man sitting in the gymnasium bleachers.

But later, when Gossner said officials “did everything we could to let you guys know there was a fire coming,” the crowd applauded loudly.

“You had many good people trying to get as many people out as we could,” Gossner said. “This is difficult for you and it’s difficult for the entire community. This was a catastrophe we just could not control and we could not let everyone know as quickly as we would like.”

State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, opened the meeting on a positive note as light rain fell, saying, “I don’t know that we could be happier that there’s rain in Sonoma County this evening.”

“We’re going to do everything we can to get you back in there and rebuild as fast as we can,” said Shirlee Zane, chairwoman of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors.

MaryAnn Sorensen, who lost her home on Foothill Ranch Road, said she came to the meeting hoping to find out “how to get rid of all the debris and make it safe so I can rebuild.”

Sorensen, 77, said she lost her home of 40 years and her dog, Tucker, who wouldn’t come when she called during a hasty departure. Her devastated neighborhood, its trees charred, “looks like an atomic bomb went off.”

Art Gambini, 67, said his home in the Riebli Road area was still standing, and he wanted to know when he could get back to it and what it would take to clean it. Gambini said he got in once and secured the home, but learned when he applied for FEMA assistance that someone else had applied using his Social Security number, presumably stolen from the house.

“Now I’ve got a fraud case to deal with,” he said.

At the Sonoma meeting, Eric Lamoureux, a California Office of Emergency Services official in charge of Sonoma County operations, urged residents to be patient with the prolonged post-fire cleanup.

“I can’t begin to imagine what you’re going through,” he said, pledging that officials will “pull out all the stops” to get toxic materials removed and fire debris scraped off burned home sites, services the state and federal government perform at no cost to homeowners.

Christine Sosho, county director of environmental health, urged people not to handle ash and debris because it is a health hazard and could disqualify residents from the government-funded cleanup.

Another OES official said the rain will help settle fire ash, and advised residents to soak it with water until it gets removed.

Blanche Mundy, 69, began crying as she described the loss of the country home in Glen Ellen she and her husband, John, 73, had moved into 14 weeks ago, following their retirement move from Walnut Creek.

The Mundys fled from the home with just the clothes on their backs and drove through “a wall of flame” on Dunbar Road the night the conflagration erupted, she said.

“This was our dream home,” she said. “It was beautiful.”

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457.