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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

Cleaning up and rebuilding after a wildfire levels a home is challenging enough, as thousands of Sonoma County residents can now attest.

But when a homeowner can’t even reach their property because the bridge to it also has burned down, the rebuilding process gets a whole lot more complicated.

Dozens of rural property owners are now coming to grips with the fact that before they can rebuild their homes, they’ll have to get permission to reconstruct what were often antiquated bridges to comply with modern building codes.

“If it’s going to be this big a hassle to get my bridge rebuilt, what’s it going to be like getting my house rebuilt?” said Roger Maples, a plumbing contractor who lost his home on Linda Lane in the Tubbs fire.

Like many of his neighbors, Maples had a 15-foot-long wooden bridge that was completely destroyed in the blaze. Now he has a gap in his driveway that prevents him from getting any vehicles onto the property.

That means cleanup crews, whether private contractors or those working through the Army Corps of Engineers, won’t be able to remove debris from the site until a temporary bridge is installed. After that, a permanent bridge will have to be rebuilt according to current building codes.

Maples is far from alone.

There were at least 72 private bridges in areas of Sonoma County burned by the Oct. 9 Tubbs and Nuns fires, which killed at least 23 people and destroyed more than 5,100 homes.

Of those spans, 27 have been completely destroyed, seven are damaged, and eight were damaged but have already been repaired, said Nathan Quarles, deputy director of the engineering and construction for the county Permit and Resource Management Department.

Another 29 structures escaped damage while one had yet to be reached by county inspectors as of Monday, Quarles said.

Three public pedestrian bridges in Santa Rosa were also destroyed in the flames, including a pair on Parker Hill Road. The city plans to replace all of them.

Helping homeowners rebuild damaged or destroyed bridges is a priority for the county, with such requests getting expedited review by planning and building staff, Quarles said.

“These bridges are a critical path, both literally and figuratively, to getting these sites cleaned up,” he said.

The county has held two special meetings to help homeowners understand the various regulatory requirements involved in rebuilding a bridge.

A third is scheduled for 10 a.m. Tuesday at the PRMD hearing room, 2550 Ventura Ave., in Santa Rosa.

The Army Corps of Engineers is skilled at quickly installing temporary bridges, often referred to as Bailey bridges.

Army Corps spokesman Rick Brown said such bridges can be installed in hours in most cases, but the agency does not yet know how many of the properties the corps has been asked to clean up will require bridges.

Owners of more than 80 percent of the 5,130 homes destroyed in Sonoma County were expected to use contractors managed by the Army Corps to remove debris from their properties.

When those contractors do install such bridges for cleanup work, it will be solely for access by their crews, and the bridge will be removed after work is complete, Army Corps officials said.

Maples’ bridge crossed what is known locally as Linda Lane Creek, which feeds into Mark West Creek, a key habitat for protected steelhead trout and coho salmon.

For this reason, state and federal wildlife officials may be consulted on bridge applications, but those are expected to be significantly streamlined, said Rich Stabler, environmental specialists at PRMD.

Maples said he attended a public meeting intended to help people understand the rebuilding process, and it sounded reasonably simple to him at the time.

Following the meeting, Maples designed a new bridge using steel girders, figuring he might as well install a stronger span, especially since he anticipates heavy equipment to be rolling across while his home is rebuilt.

Maples took his drawings to PRMD about two weeks ago hoping to get the permit process started, but left in frustration.

He was told he didn’t have the proper engineering certifications to prove his concrete footings were sound, he said. County staff didn’t have answers to basic questions about the application process, he said.

He said he was told initially that anyone with a contractor’s license could do the work, but he later found out that a Class A contractor’s license will be required. Quarles confirmed that this inaccurate information was put out at the first meeting but that it was clarified for the second, which Maples did not attend.

“They can’t put us through this kind of stuff. It’s ridiculous,” Maples said.

He’s not the only one frustrated by the county’s process.

“It’s a nightmare,” said Santino DeRose, the first property owner to submit an actual building permit application to replace his bridge.

The only way to reach DeRose's million-dollar home on Wallace Road and two others along his private drive was to cross a small bridge over Rincon Creek, a tributary of Brush Creek.

All that remains of the span is the steel girders and the abutments.

DeRose’s contractor applied on Oct. 31, including a report by a licensed civil engineer. The estimated cost of the job was $25,000.

On Nov. 8, county plan checkers issued a two-page letter outlining nine additional items, including engineering calculations, that would need to be provided before the application would be complete. The measures included proof that the abutment walls and steel beams were sound and a “hydraulic analysis” showing the bridge would be at least one foot above the 100-year flood level.

Kevin Zucco, an engineer with ZFA Structural Engineers in Santa Rosa, said the permitting process for new bridges in the county was already “pretty onerous.” But it makes sense the county would now require materials testing because concrete loses its strength when it is heated up to over 600 degrees, something his firm is seeing on a lot of home foundations.

“Basically, the county is going to require that the abutments meet code,” Zucco said, which he acknowledged could get expensive.

The county is merely ensuring that the bridges are rebuilt properly and according to modern building codes, Quarles said. “There are a lot of things mandated by state law that we can’t ignore,” he said.

Nor, he said, can the county control how quickly applicants respond to their comments or how quickly other agencies respond, he said.

Because working in the creek can trigger additional environmental review, Quarles said he expects many applicants will design their bridges to avoid it if at all possible. He acknowledged that much may depend on whether a bridge is a “repair” or a “replacement.”

Joan Hawley and her husband, Gino, lived in a home at the end of Linda Lane whose bridge was destroyed in the fire.

They’ve been able to visit the site by walking across a neighbor’s property, but can’t get vehicles across.

The couple is now living in the East Bay, and Joan Hawley drives 77 miles one way to her job as a security guard in Windsor. Like Maples, they’ve signed up for the Army Corps-managed cleanup.

But they have no idea when it will begin, and feel “stymied” by the fact that the bridge permitting process will have to precede their home reconstruction.

“The bridge is the first thing we have to do, because we can’t do anything else without it,” Hawley said. “Now, it’s just a waiting game.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 707-521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.

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