Fire cleanup pace quickens in Santa Rosa's Fountaingrove neighborhood

Kevin Johnson, right, and Barry Thomas, employees of Siri Grading & Paving Inc., fix a storm drain after it was damaged by the Tubbs fire on Newbury Ct. in the Fountaingrove area of Santa Rosa, on Sunday, November 12, 2017. (BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)


The Tubbs fire’s toll grew to include costly water and storm drain infrastructure in Santa Rosa’s Fountaingrove neighborhood, where cleanup is now picking up pace and public safety authorities have stepped up their traffic oversight in the wake of a serious multi-vehicle dump truck crash. A recap of the recovery so far in Fountaingrove:

Slow start

The hillside neighborhood of Fountaingrove was always going to face an uphill battle to rebuild following the fires.

Removing debris from 1,420 home sites located on the winding roads of the northeast Santa Rosa enclave was by definition going to be a more formidable undertaking than clearing a flat, level subdivision like Coffey Park.

Major infrastructure damage, including melted storm drains and a contaminated water supply, have further hindered the effort.

So, 4½ months after the fires, while the rebuilding effort is underway in Coffey Park, it has yet to really begin on the hills east of Highway 101. While the majority of homeowners affected by the October fires have participated in the government cleanup effort, a higher percentage of residents in Fountaingrove residents have opted to hire private contractors to clear their lots, thanks in part to better insurance coverage.

But the private cleanup has significantly lagged the work orchestrated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a fact that recently prompted the city and county to set an April 9 deadline for private cleanups.

While progress is being made to rebuild Fountaingrove, tangible signs of it have been tougher to see so far in 2018.

Infrastructure in peril

The first sign of just how compromised Fountaingrove’s infrastructure had become following the fires was when sinkholes opened up and officials issued landslide warnings for the area.

The intense heat of the fires that destroyed more than 3,000 homes in the city also melted several sections of high-density polyurethane storm drain pipe, allowing rainwater to undermine sections of earth and roadway.

Quick action by the city combined with the dry winter to date have helped the city stay on top of the issue, and all the known-to-be damaged storm drains have been repaired.

A more insidious problem is the contamination of the drinking water in the area. The city is mystified by how the volatile hydrocarbon benzene is getting into the water system and how to fix the problem.

Despite hundreds of water tests, detailed mapping of the results and replacement of equipment, officials remain confounded and contemplating the possibility that a $20 million replacement of the water system may be the only solution.

Only a portion of Fountaingrove is affected. An advisory was issued for 184 acres on both sides of Fountaingrove Parkway, including approximately 350 homesites, mostly off Fir Ridge Drive, South Ridge Drive and parts of Crown Hill Drive.

And the handful of residents whose homes survived and who have returned to the area have been alerted to the problem and supplied with clean drinking water.

But the more tests the city takes, the more benzene it seems to find. Since Dec. 12, there have been more than 100 test results confirming the presence of benzene at levels higher than 1 part per billion, which is the maximum containment level for benzene in drinking water in the state.

Foundation confusion

Fountaingrove residents seem to have confronted the most disparity in government-chartered cleanup work of their burned homesites. While many residents initially questioned why foundations had to be removed at all, residents of three lots on Sedgemoore Drive had the opposite experience.

When contractors managed by the Army Corps of Engineers finished cleaning their lots, the residents were perplexed to find parts of concrete foundations still peeking through the compacted brown soil.

“Very frustrating,” said Todd Wright, a Sedgemoore Drive homeowner. “They promised us full removal. That’s what some people got” but not others.

Wright and his neighbors now worry that the pieces of their foundation left in place — a decision the Corps said was justified for erosion control reasons — will cost them dearly to remove.

The agency argues that “stem walls and retaining walls may be left on a case-by-case basis for erosion-control purposes,” but Wright and others have argued that the decision makes no sense and hasn’t been fully explained.

Cleanup of fire debris at 4,540 sites in Sonoma County is now 62 percent complete, according to the Corps’ latest report, which also says more than 1.4 million tons of debris have been removed from Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties combined.

Tragic crash

Debris removal efforts in Fountaingrove came to a halt earlier this month after a dump truck laden with up to 15 tons of debris caused a fiery, multivehicle accident at the base of Fountain Grove Parkway.

The crash caused Burlingame-based ECC, the government contractor working to clear burned residential lots, to call a halt to its hauling operations to review safety procedures, including inspecting brake and reviewing driver protocols.

Initial reports indicated the truck’s brakes might have failed as it descended a steep section of Fountain Grove Parkway.

The four-axle 2009 Kenworth dump truck, owned by 18 Trucking of Hayward, was driven by Francisco Alberto Rodriguez, 45, of Sunnyvale. He ran through a red light, barreled into the intersection on Mendocino Avenue, and struck a southbound pickup truck, police said.

The out-of-control truck collided with six other vehicles, coming to rest on a hill in the eastbound lanes of Fountain Grove Parkway with diesel spurting from its ruptured fuel tank.

Six vehicles, including the dump truck were engulfed in flames, filling the sky over northern Santa Rosa with black smoke before firefighters extinguished the blaze. Seven motorists were injured in the crash, including three who sustained major injuries.

The crash was the latest reminder of the risk inherent in the cleanup work, which has substantially increased heavy truck traffic on local roads and Highway 101. In December, a dump truck driver working for a subcontractor to AshBritt Inc. was crushed to death by his truck at the county landfill.

“I don’t think we have jurisdiction over safety of those trucks, but I want to see what can be done to ensure that trucks going up and down that hill are being maintained correctly,” Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey said.

Looking forward

Aaron Groves said the debris cleanup process — he opted to go private contractor — has been slower than he expected, but still relatively smooth.

“I still think it was the right decision,” to go the private route, he said.

The financial consultant and his wife, Judith Hong, a dermatologist, lost their split-level Rincon Ridge home in the Tubbs fire, but they were well insured. They became convinced that hiring a general contractor who could oversee the site cleanup as well as the rebuild would give them more control over the process and opportunities to save money though a more integrated approach.

They’ve been pleased with the process, and their site was cleared in early February, with test results pending.

On a personal level, the past four months have been challenging, as they only recently got settled in a rented home in Windsor, he said.

“I think we’re out of crisis mode at this point, but it’s still going to be awhile before things are back to normal,” he said.

They’re predicting some delays in the design and permitting of their new home, but they are also excited about the process. The couple has decided to take the opportunity to not just replace the home they had, but to rebuild their “dream home” on the property. They’ve hired an architect and are enjoying re-imagining living in a new, energy efficient home, which they hope to break ground on by the fall.

“It’s really nice to have something to look forward to instead of looking back at what happened,” Aaron Groves said.

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