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Final fire lot cleared in Coffey Park

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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

The yellow, rubber-tracked excavator rolled up the driveway Friday to the rubble of the last debris-filled lot in Coffey Park.

Within minutes the excavator’s bucket amassed a car-sized mound of ash, bricks and broken bits of rust-colored metals. A red dump truck arrived to haul the refuse to a landfill near Novato. The debris and the burned house’s concrete foundation would be removed by day’s end, said Michael Wolff, head of the construction company cleaning the lot.

The Waring Court homesite was the last to be cleared of fire debris in the northwest Santa Rosa neighborhood, where 1,200 houses burned during last fall’s deadly wildfires.

“It’s time for the next chapter,” said Wolff, CEO of Wolff Contracting in Santa Rosa. “It feels like now we’re really into the building phase.”

October’s Tubbs fire burned west from Calistoga and turned a large swath of northern Santa Rosa into a fiery wasteland. Four people died in and near Coffey Park. In all, the North Bay wildfires that month claimed 40 lives and destroyed 6,200 homes.

Along with the Waring Court property, Wolff’s crew cleared Friday two lots on nearby Brandee Lane. All three belong to the same property owner.

A city official confirmed the three properties were the final ones from which ash and rubble needed to be removed from in Coffey Park.

“Those are the last of the house site footprints to be cleaned,” Assistant Fire Marshal Paul Lowenthal said Friday.

However, the milestone comes with some caveats.

While the ash and rubble have been removed from single-family homes, debris cleanup at the nearby Hopper Lane Apartments had yet to commence as of a few days ago, Lowenthal said. The Hopper Avenue complex is the last of the burned apartment and commercial sites in the city to begin such cleanup, he said.

Also, about 90 homes in the county that previously had fire debris removed under a government-sponsored cleanup still need additional attention, Lowenthal said. The added work, which also may affect Coffey Park homes, includes taking out more concrete, soil or other items.

Nonetheless, a neighborhood leader said Friday marked a key moment for Coffey Park.

“That fire debris is gone,” said Jeff Okrepkie, chairman of the Coffey Strong neighborhood group. “You’re not looking at it anymore.”

For some neighbors, the debris was a painful reminder of the trauma and loss suffered in the neighborhood. Also, Okrepkie said, at least one contractor had raised concerns about exposing his construction workers to potentially toxic materials on one of the three lots that Wolff cleaned Friday.

More than 90 percent of the lots in Coffey Park were cleared last fall and winter under the public cleanup program, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The government-sponsored crews removed the fire debris in late January.

Since then, attention has turned toward the remaining sites, where property owners elected to hire private contractors to complete the cleanup.

For about a dozen lots in Santa Rosa, including the three cleaned Friday, the city had begun formal abatement proceedings and ordered the owners to commence cleanup, Lowenthal said.

“We had to force them to move forward,” he said.

Coffey Park residents also had called on the city to get the three properties cleared.

Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

“We’ve definitely heard from people about those specific lots,” Okrepkie said.

For Wolff, Friday’s work brought the total number of lots his company completely cleared in the county to 135, both as part of the government cleanup and while hired directly by property owners. His crews also helped partially clean more than 500 other lots.

“This is the first time we’ve ever done anything like this,” Wolff said. His 8-year-old company previously had focused mostly on home remodeling, but after the fires it bought excavators and specialized dump trucks for the debris cleanup and beyond.

“What we’re going to start focusing on now is preparing lots for construction,” he said.

That future work will include bringing in fill dirt, compacting soil and removing in-ground swimming pools. His crews also will remove dead trees.

Wolff owns vacant property on Dennis Lane just north of Coffey Park and one day plans to build a home there for his wife and two daughters.

On the morning of the fires, he checked on the property and later entered the burned sections of Coffey Park. Seeing the destruction brought tears to his eyes.

“I couldn’t believe what I was looking at,” he said.

For him, completing the debris cleanup Friday meant “there’s hope and a sense of accomplishment.”

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 707-521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com.

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