The wind had shifted and the skies seemed mostly clear over Redding when Jeff Okrepkie headed north to the city to talk with its fire survivors.
Okrepkie, himself a fire survivor and a leader in Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park recovery efforts, drove late last month to the city at the north end of the Sacramento Valley to offer guidance to victims of this summer’s Carr fire.
“They were very much like us a month after the fire,” said Okrepkie, chairman of the Coffey Strong neighborhood group. “They didn’t know what they needed to know.”
Adam McElvain, a Redding city councilman who helped arrange Okrepkie’s presentation, said the information was helpful, as was the opportunity for fire survivors to hear directly from someone who shared their experience.
Okrepkie and another fire survivor who took part in the evening presentation “can relate to our residents on an emotional level,” McElvain said.
The idea of survivors helping survivors is nothing new to Coffey Park residents.
In the aftermath of last fall’s North Bay wildfires, which claimed 40 lives and destroyed 6,200 homes, fire survivors in Sonoma County turned out by the hundreds at various meetings to hear from those who had lost everything in San Diego’s 2003 Cedar wildfire and other blazes. The speakers spoke of their battles with insurance carriers and an array of other challenges as they worked to rebuild their homes.
Then in July, the Carr fire hit Redding, destroying 1,600 homes, businesses and other structures in and near the city. It also claimed eight lives.
McElvain has known Okrepkie for at least a decade through their membership in the Active 20-30 Club, of which Okrepkie is now the national president. The councilman said he asked his friend to come make a presentation focused on what fire survivors need to know in the first three months after the blaze.
“The whole city is going through the grieving process,” McElvain said.
A solid month of smoke, including at least two weeks with hazardous air quality, has provided a regular reminder of the destruction.
“We had a month of red sun and orange sky, so it was pretty dismal,” McElvain said last week, before the nearby Delta fire erupted, closing Interstate 5 and spewing more smoke between Redding and Mount Shasta.
Okrepkie went to Redding with Kunal Nagpal, a fire survivor and builder who operates Emerge Rebuild in Santa Rosa. The two spoke one evening to nearly 100 people, including about 20 fire survivors. The next day, they spoke with city and county officials.
Okrepkie said he urged those who lost homes to band together for a stronger recovery.
“You need somebody to commiserate with,” he recalled saying. “Otherwise it will eat you up.”
He also cautioned fire survivors against moving too quickly to rebuild. In Sonoma County, he said, it took time for local officials, utilities and others to make key decisions on how the recovery would take place. Trying to rush the process can result in setbacks.
Beside Okrepkie and Nagpal, Redding benefited by a visit from Santa Rosa City Manager Sean McGlynn soon after the fire’s outbreak, McElvain said. Residents and local officials appreciate all the insights to help with their city’s recovery.
“I can’t tell you how beneficial that was for us to learn from you in Santa Rosa,” he said.