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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

Far from the grapevines he usually tends, vineyard worker Ruben Garcia used a four-pound sledgehammer to drive wooden stakes through a roll of rice straw stretched along a street curb this week in fire-ravaged Fountaingrove.

“That works,” said Garcia, wearing jeans, a blue jacket and baseball cap.

He offered a few pointers on technique to Suzi Redlich, kneeling next to him on the asphalt amid the incinerated homes and a Santa Rosa fire station on Newgate Court.

Redlich, an executive assistant for external affairs, and Garcia both work for Jackson Family Wines, which provided a volunteer labor force for one day of the urgent, post-fire mission that also gained support from the city of Santa Rosa, two environmental nonprofits and the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board.

“Time is of the essence,” said Bruce McConnell, a former city finance chief whose home was among more than 1,000 reduced to ashes by the Tubbs fire, which burned down most of Fountaingrove last month.

McConnell’s project is aimed at keeping the chemicals and toxins in those ashes, as well as residue of air-dropped fire retardant, from reaching three creeks that flow into the Laguna de Santa Rosa, a biologically impaired waterway that connects to the Russian River.

Seven or eight inches of rain will trigger erosion on the fire-scorched slopes of Fountaingrove, carrying contaminants into storm drains in which “everything goes downhill,” McConnell said.

Volunteers began laying five miles of wattles — absorbent rice straw wrapped in plastic netting — along the curbs in the 590-lot Fountaingrove II subdivision on Tuesday and was wrapping up Friday.

By filtering runoff from burned home sites before it reaches the streets, the wattles will reduce the amount of fire debris that flows from Fountaingrove down to Paulin, Brush and Piner creeks, said Don McEnhill, executive director of Russian Riverkeeper, a nonprofit dedicated to defending the river.

The three creeks join Santa Rosa Creek, which flows into the Laguna, where contaminants generally settle to the bottom of the slow-flowing waterway, a 14-mile wetland complex along the west edge of the Santa Rosa Plain.

McEnhill, who is assisting in the Fountaingrove project, said he was stunned when he first came up to the area Monday.

“Nothing was protected,” he said.

McEnhill said he was especially concerned about the potential harm from the bright pink fire retardant dropped from Cal Fire aircraft to combat the wildfires, much to panicked residents’ relief two months ago.

But now, he said, the chemicals in retardant, which is considered not harmful to humans, can kill fish and also stimulate harmful algae blooms in water.

Mona Dougherty, a senior water engineer for the North Coast water board, shares his concern for keeping fire waste out of the Laguna, which she described as “significantly impaired” by nutrients, sediment, high temperature and low levels of dissolved oxygen.

It flows, albeit slowly, into the river, which is a major water source for humans and habitat for endangered coho salmon, Dougherty said.

The regional water board has secured $250,000 in state funds for erosion control materials, including wattles and gravel, in fire-damaged areas of Sonoma and Mendocino counties and already spent $100,000. It will pay $25,000 for the wattles installed at Fountaingrove.

The State Water Resources Control Board is also paying $550,000 for hydromulching 90 acres of public property in Fountaingrove to combat erosion, she said.

Fountaingrove was identified as a “high priority need” after the fires and the funding came quickly to get the work done as soon as possible, Dougherty said.

Chris Brokate, executive director of the Clean River Alliance, a local group formed to clear refuse along the river, also helped with the wattles project this week.

The magnitude of the property loss from the October fires, including the Tubbs blaze, deemed the most destructive in state history, may be compounded by the impact on the river, he said.

“What I see potentially could be another disaster facing us,” Brokate said.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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