Golis: Two years on, still struggling with fires’ impacts

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We are driving down a street where a neighborhood used to be, a place where we often visited friends. The blackened mailboxes and the remains of a backyard fountain remind us that people used to live here. Among the dozen burned-out lots on this block, a single home is being rebuilt. For-sale signs on three other lots signal that other families decided to move on.

As Sonoma County marks the second anniversary of the devastating fires of 2017, we can take pride in all that has been accomplished by people engaged in the business of rebuilding. About half of the homes that were lost have been rebuilt or are under construction.

But if we look around, we also know how much work is left to do. In the beginning, people said this would be a marathon, not a sprint, and so it is.

Along the way, we’ve learned there is no one-size-fits-all instruction book when it comes to dealing with catastrophic fires. Every week seems to bring some obstacle no one foresaw. People and communities are left to navigate as best they can all that came with the disaster, including the frustration and anguish people feel.

There are at least 5,300 unique stories to be told, one for every home burned to the ground on that hot and windy night. Two years on, the victims’ pain may be less visible, but it’s still there.

If you ask people who lost their homes (and everything inside them), they will tell you that feelings are still raw. They talk about the emotional roller coaster, the serial frustrations that come in dealing with public and private bureaucracies, the ongoing financial stresses and the fatigue that comes with trying to return to normalcy while also meeting the responsibilities of their day jobs. Even those who have settled into new homes continue to grieve, and they’re not sure when or if they will ever be the same as they were before the fires.

Fire victims worry, too, that others have moved on — a transition that becomes easier to do if (a) everything you own wasn’t incinerated, and (b) you haven’t spent the past 24 months trying to manage the multitude of complications involved with starting over.

The lesson here is that if you know people who lost their homes, ask them now and again how they’re doing, and give them some love. The trauma is real and lingering, especially when the road to normalcy is strewn with so many obstacles.

Consider the folks who lost their homes and who gathered last week at Old Courthouse Square to protest insurance companies that won’t extend their rental assistance beyond two years — a deadline that expires this week. When one home is destroyed by fire, two years may be enough time to rebuild. When 5,300 homes and entire neighborhoods are destroyed in one night, it’s simply impossible.

Here’s another lesson: If you haven’t already, make sure your insurance will be adequate to the task when the next disaster comes along.

The work continues. Slowly but surely, homes are being rebuilt. New emergency alert systems are being installed. Firefighting capacities are being upgraded. More money is being spent on best forest practices and on reducing the risks associated with electrical lines in wildfire areas.

In courts and elsewhere, we continue the work of apportioning liability for the fires, a process that will inevitably lead to a wider discussion of the management of public utilities in California.

Meanwhile, we’re still trying to understand how climate change will require us to think in new ways about housing in fire-prone areas. And we’re still waiting to inventory how the loss of 5,300 homes will affect the work life and the economy of Sonoma County.

Exploring these neighborhoods, you still see things that hurt your heart.

In one hilltop neighborhood, there are twice as many lots for sale as there are homes being rebuilt. On one empty lot, you see the burned skeleton of a basketball backboard. Kids used to play here.

Where the Hilton Hotel, the Fountaingrove Inn, Kmart and the Journey’s End Mobile Home Park used to be, you see only empty spaces with an occasional concrete remnant that reminds us of what was destroyed. (Eventually, new housing will be built on the Journey’s End site.)

We wish more homes and businesses were rebuilt by now. At the same time, we celebrate what has been accomplished. All those new homes testify to the perseverance of homeowners and to the skills and hard work of the thousands of people involved in the work of rebuilding. Driving through these neighborhoods, you see them working to put things right.

If you’re going to visit neighborhoods ravaged by fire, save Coffey Park for last. There you will see rows of new homes, every one a testimony to a neighborhood being reborn. (Of the 1,473 homes lost here, according to city officials, 521 have been rebuilt, and another 572 are under construction. Another 104 lots have approved permits, and 60 lots have pending permit applications.)

We pass a new house where a couple is unpacking boxes in the garage and a large banner is streamed across the front of the house. The banner reads:

“Welcome home.”

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.

You can send a letter to the editor at letters@pressdemocrat.com.

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