From his driveway in Coffey Park, Jeff Okrepkie peered 5 miles across Santa Rosa to Taylor Mountain.
The hilltop of oak and grassland is visible because all the houses that once stood before Okrepkie have been reduced to ash and twisted metal, much like his own Espresso Court home.
If only the path forward for Coffey Park were as easy to see as the mountain.
“The more answers I get, the more questions I have,” said Okrepkie, 38, an emerging leader in the neighborhood’s efforts to help 1,300 property owners rebuild their homes following last month’s devastating fires.
Okrepkie and other Coffey Park residents are trying to organize their community, even as neighbors face their first major test: how to clean up the largest concentration of burned properties in Sonoma County. No single neighborhood suffered greater devastation in the historic firestorm than this middle-class subdivision, home to police officers, teachers, firefighters and so many others that make the region run every day.
How these homeowners work through the cleanup could significantly influence the rebuilding of their neighborhood following the costliest wildfires in U.S. history.
Owners of destroyed properties in Coffey Park and other parts of the city and county have until Nov. 13 to join the government cleanup program. After that date, homeowners presumably would be on their own to find contractors and pay for the cleanup themselves or with insurance proceeds.
Before that deadline was set last week, the biggest gripe about government around Coffey Park was that a county supervisor had been quoted in a San Francisco newspaper proposing higher-density housing for the northwest neighborhood — comments generally reviled by the residents and which the supervisor, Shirlee Zane, last week said “did not reflect how I feel.”
But the debris deadline soon became a topic of conversation and disagreement.
Santa Rosa Councilman Tom Schwedhelm, whose home still stands in Coffey Park, said in the days since Wednesday’s council meeting — where the date was first announced — he has heard from neighbors who applaud the Nov. 13 deadline and from those telling him “we feel like we’re being threatened by the city.”
The success of the cleanup is bound to affect the pace of recovery in Coffey Park. If a homesite were to remain covered with toxic debris while the neighboring properties get cleaned up, “all of a sudden it becomes a public nuisance,” said Schwedhelm, who supports the debris decision deadline. If a number of properties sit contaminated, it becomes an even greater problem.
Four weeks have passed since wildfires swept through Sonoma County, claiming at least 23 lives and laying waste to more than 5,100 homes. Along the wider North Coast, the state reports the region’s October fires resulted in more than $3 billion in insured losses, making them the costliest ever for the nation.
Homeowners to lot owners
Coffey Park remains an anomaly among wildland fire disasters. A collection of tract housing developments, it sits in the flats of the Santa Rosa Plain, west of Highway 101 and at least a half-mile from the chaparral and grasslands that burned in the fire-prone hills of Fountaingrove.
But wind-whipped cinders and other debris jumped the six-lane freeway and spread flames another mile across a commercial strip and a swath of single-family subdivisions. Today in the center of Coffey Park, not a home stands in a section extending three quarters of a mile from near Piner Road to the northern city limits.
Overnight, blocks of neighbors went from being homeowners to lot owners. They became part of the nearly 2,900 Santa Rosa households who lost properties and now must decide whether to sell or rebuild.
“That is basically 3,000 developers who weren’t developers before this fire,” said Raissa de la Rosa, a manager in the city’s Planning and Economic Development Department. “We’ve never seen anything like this before.”
Those who lost homes “are being required to become experts in insurance, banks, mortgages, construction and debris removal,” Okrepkie said. In response, he and other neighbors already have held one meeting for more than 200 Coffey Park residents, and they plan to convene more to help gather needed information and to provide a source of feedback to the city.
Many decisions to be made
For those owners who wish to rebuild, a number of decisions loom. They include whether to put back an identical house or to select a new design. Another choice is whether to individually hire the needed architects, engineers and builders or to band together with neighbors to obtain such services — a move that could save time and money.
But the first decision, and one that every property owner must soon make, is whether to hand over the task of debris cleanup to the Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps, in cooperation with FEMA, state and local agencies, has said it wants to complete the cleanup by early next year.
When the city, county and federal officials set the deadline, less than one in 5 affected homeowners in Sonoma County had signed agreements permitting government-paid contractors to enter homesites and remove debris from the fires. Some homeowners simply have put off signing the right-of-entry forms and some appear deeply skeptical of the government program. Some now express doubts the city should stick with its deadline.
“I personally don’t think it’s enough time,” said Okrepkie, an insurance agent for businesses and the president-elect of the Active 20-30 Club for the U.S. and Canada.
For outsiders, it may sound striking that property owners would choose to handle toxic debris cleanup themselves when the government is offering to do it at “no cost to the property owners,” as stated at the government website, sonomacountyrecovers.org. The only financial requirements listed there are that a homeowner must turn over any funds from insurance coverage dedicated to debris removal, or lacking such coverage, to afterward provide any unused benefit amount, if any, of general rebuilding coverage.
However, the dearth of sign-ups has many asking what is holding back the property owners. Skeptical homeowners have been reluctant to speak publicly, but some have said privately they heard that past government debris cleanups left homeowners with giant holes in their yards or with damaged septic systems.
Also, some homeowners may fear their insurance dollars for debris cleanup would be taken by the government and they would end up paying themselves for items not handled by the federal contractors, such as the removal of large trees or swimming pools.
Okrepkie said he has spoken with neighbors who want more time to get quotes from private contractors so they can compare the estimated costs with the government program. Without that, he said, “you can’t make an educated decision.”
Looming cleanup deadlines
John Bly, executive vice president with the Northern California Engineering Contractors Association, acknowledged that homeowners may want quotes, but he said it is unlikely that contractors can provide them by Nov. 13. Contractors first should test the homesite in order to know what specific toxics must be removed, as well as how much soil must be excavated, he said. The results could affect how far away the debris must be taken to the proper landfill.
Given uncertainty over the private choice, Bly suggested the majority of Coffey Park homeowners sign up with the government program. He acknowledged many consider it imperfect, but said for most residents there “the best choice is still to go with the state cleanup.”
And he warned against doing nothing. If a property owner doesn’t act, the city has said it can go in, clean up the homesite and place a lien on the property for the full cost of recovery.
“This is a health hazard that has to be taken care of,” Bly said.
In Coffey Park, neighbors will be watching whether the city gives residents more time to join the cleanup program. That appeared less likely Friday when county supervisors set the same application deadline for the unincorporated areas.
The supervisors also announced a separate Nov. 22 deadline for property owners to submit a work plan if they choose to use a private contractor. That requirement also applies to Santa Rosans, including those in Coffey Park.
Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey defended the Nov. 13 date as the right move “for the good of the city as a whole.”
“I believe the deadline is necessary if we want to get this disaster cleaned up and any kind of recovery underway,” Coursey said.
You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 707-521-5285 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @rdigit.