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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

Inside the Kohl’s department store off Hopper Avenue, there are no signs of the fires that raged just outside its doors early the morning of Oct. 9.

There is no soot, no sign of smoke damage and no lingering scent like the vaguely chemical one still hovering over the Coffey Park neighborhood just west of the building.

On March 18, after months of cleaning and renovations, the department store is set to open once again to the public, fulfilling a promise it long ago made to a community that store manager Troy Smith said it is “so dedicated to.”

“It wasn’t really a question of if we were going to reopen, it was just how long it would take for us to reopen,” he said, standing inside the brightly lit and refurbished building on Airway Drive. In addition to a deep cleaning, Kohl’s corporate took the opportunity to refresh the building with a more airy design, with lots of white and light-colored flooring. On Tuesday, workers arranged clothing racks and pushed carts laden with inventory around the nearly completed store.

In all, 29 businesses around Santa Rosa were damaged or destroyed by the October wildfires that roared through Sonoma County, killing 22 and razing 6,579 structures. Some businesses burned in the fires, such as the Trader Joe’s on Cleveland Avenue, plan to reopen, while others, such as the 113,500-square-foot Kmart on the same street, will not.

“Given the condition of the store, the decision was made to terminate our lease and not rebuild another store at this location,” said Howard Riefs, director of communications for Sears Holdings Corp., which owns Kmart.

For those that do plan to reopen, it’s often unclear when that might occur. Work is happening every day at the burned-out site of the Cleveland Avenue Trader Joe’s, said Kenya Friend, public relations director for the grocery chain, but there is no estimate for when it might be ready for business.

“We know that our customers want the store opened,” Friend said, directing customers in the meantime to the Santa Rosa Avenue location.

For Smith, the manager of Kohl’s, Oct. 9 began for him at 3 a.m. with a call from the alarm company telling him there was a fire in the area of the store, and that while the fire department had been notified no one was coming.

“Imagine you’re half asleep,” Smith said. “You’re like, ‘What?’ The (fire) department said they won’t go down to the building because they’re too busy.”

That’s when he turned on the news inside his Windsor home, only to see the destruction unfolding to the south and east.

“They were trying to describe it, but it was chaos,” he said. “No one really understood what was going on. ... I look on the news, and I’m like, ‘Oh my God.’ ”

All that morning, Smith tried to reach the store’s 103 employees. It took about four days to find everyone, he said. With spotty reception and the chaos, Smith drove to some people’s houses to find them.

“The last few, it got to the point where I was like, ‘I am just going to find you,’ ” he said.

Four Kohl’s employees lost their homes in the wildfires. Three of them are preparing to return to work at the Santa Rosa location when it reopens in March. The fourth had to move out of the area when she couldn’t find housing, he said.

“When (corporate was) calling, they weren’t really worried about the store,” he said. “All of the conversations were like, ‘Have you gotten to everybody? Is everybody OK? Does anybody need help?’ I had people from Kohl’s in other states calling (to offer help).”

While the store underwent renovations, employees were offered jobs at other locations in Petaluma and San Rafael.

Those who lost property were offered financial help — up to a few thousand dollars per employee to help them get restarted, Smith said.

Pointing out the new jewelry displays and registers, the new customer service desk and the racks just starting to be hung with clothes, Smith smiled.

“We are pretty excited,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Christi Warren at 707-521-5205 or christi.warren@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @SeaWarren.

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