One month ago, the face of Sonoma County changed forever.
Monster winds stoked a series of deadly wildfires that began Oct. 8 and roared into Santa Rosa and the Sonoma Valley, surprising sleeping residents and wiping out whole neighborhoods from Fountaingrove to Coffey Park.
By the time the devastating blazes were contained nearly three weeks later, they had charred more than 114,000 acres, destroyed 5,300 homes and killed 23 people, becoming the worst wildfires in state history.
Damage is estimated at $3 billion.
Now, with the smoke cleared and recovery underway, many are still trying to cope with the magnitude of the disaster while growing increasingly anxious about the future.
Key questions still remain about the night the firestorm erupted: What caused the fires? And why were some people not warned before flames reached their neighborhoods?
Equally important questions loom in the coming weeks and months: Where will displaced people go? How many will return to Sonoma County? How long will it take to rebuild and how much will it cost? What will become of the local real estate, tourism and job markets?
Ben Stone, head of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board, expects a temporary loss of workers and visitors. But he predicted they will return and the economy will strengthen as new and possibly better housing goes up.
“I think the economy will come back pretty quickly simply because we’re getting so much insurance money,” said Stone, who lost his Coffey Park home of 29 years. “All that will help bring the area back.”
Randon Way resident Louis Pell also was optimistic despite losing the uninsured home he shared with his mother, girlfriend and daughter, Lilly, 8. The 28-year-old pool contractor said he would rebuild with help from friends in the trades.
“I’m a young guy and I still have options about what I’m going to do,” said Pell, who played tetherball in front of his leveled home Tuesday. “I have time on my side.”
Others said it is too soon to tell just a month after the fires.
Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey said Tuesday he’s not speculating about the future but is instead “taking small bites” and focusing on the day-to-day tasks in front of him.
“I’m not celebrating the anniversary,” Coursey said. “At times it feels like it’s been forever since a month ago and other times it feels like yesterday.”
Blackened hills and leveled neighborhoods are the most visible reminders of the Tubbs fire, named for a road in Calistoga where it is believed to have started about 9:45 p.m. on Oct. 8.
Fanned by winds up to 78 mph, it raced a distance of about 15 miles into Santa Rosa, nearly mirroring the destructive path of the Hanly fire 53 years earlier. Thousands were forced to evacuate with little or no notice as flames incinerated neighborhoods in the hills and valley floors, jumping Highway 101 into Coffey Park. Some were trapped while trying to escape and burned to death.
“When you take into consideration that it burned from Calistoga to Santa Rosa in little over four hours, it was pretty amazing,” said Bret Gouvea, Cal Fire’s incident commander from Oct. 8 to Oct. 27