Rebuilding Sonoma County: Fountaingrove rebuild includes water, open space restoration

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Special coverage

This story is part of a monthly series in 2018 chronicling the rebuilding efforts in Sonoma County’s four fire zones: Coffey Park, Fountaingrove, the greater Mark West area and Sonoma Valley.

Read all of the Rebuild North Bay coverage here.

Nearly half of the 3,100 Santa Rosa homes reduced to ash in the Tubbs fire were in the Fountaingrove neighborhood.

But nine months after the most devastating wildfire in state history, just 16 percent of the homes being rebuilt in the city are in the hillside enclave. The rebuilding effort in the area, while picking up, still lags behind other areas of the city.

Of the 266 homes under construction in the city last week, just 44 were in the Fountaingrove and Hidden Valley areas, comparing to 222 in Coffey Park.

The explanations for the slower pace of recovery in those areas are by now familiar: The cleanup of the larger lots generally took longer. The gap between insurance payouts and the cost of reconstruction is in many cases greater for an area where most of the homes — many of them custom — exceeded $1 million in value. The average age of residents in the area was greater, leaving many less motivated to endure two years or more of rebuilding. And the uncertainty created by the water supply contamination in a section of the neighborhood covering 350 homes has given many pause.

Facing so many obstacles, hundreds of residents have put their properties up for sale after clearing their lots. The area consistently has had the highest concentration of burned lots on the market since the disaster.

But there are signs rebuilding in the area is picking up quickly. The 44 homes under construction is sharply up from the 26 last month. And the number of applications in the pipeline is growing fast. The 106 applications represents 43 percent of the 244 pending permit applications in the city.

It all suggests it’s going to be a busy construction season on the hillside.

Water system improvements

In addition to the influx of homebuilders, Fountaingrove is about to be invaded by an army of water system workers in the coming weeks in Santa Rosa’s latest effort to eliminate the contamination in the area’s drinking water.

The city has enlisted two different construction firms to help replace water service lines in the hillside neighborhood on an accelerated timeline.

Kansas-based Terracon will be replacing service lines to 352 homes inside the water quality advisory area, where benzene is believed to have been released from melting plastic water pipes, contaminating the water mains.

That work will cost $2.3 million and is expected to be completed by Aug. 8.

Sonoma-based Northern Pacific Corp. will handle a smaller contract, replacing about 90 service lines at properties outside the advisory area where the contamination is thought to be isolated and not systemic.

That work will cost about $600,000 and is supposed to be completed by the end of August.

In both cases, workers will be digging trenches in the street, exposing the water mains and replacing the water service lines that run from the trunk to the curb and the meters.

The lines, most of which are uncoated 3/4-inch copper, will be replaced with larger 1-inch poly-coated copper. The uncoated pipes were susceptible to corrosion and leaks. The larger size lines are now required because of the increased demand created by the requirement that new homes be built with fire sprinklers.

City officials have previously said they’ve been surprised at how some of the underground utilities have been arranged, including the placement of gas lines. Because of this, contractors will be required to carefully identify utilities before digging, said Lori Urbanek, deputy director of capital projects engineering.

The city and contractors will be working closely with PG&E, ensuring the process goes smoothly, though there are inherent risks, Urbanek said.

“Probably our biggest challenge is running into things that we don’t know about,” Urbanek said.

Restoring open spaces

Homes and water lines aren’t the only things being rebuilt in Fountaingrove. The hundreds of acres of natural habitat and open space that made the area so attractive also is in dire need of restoration.

The Fountaingrove II neighborhood, which was mostly completed in the 1990s, is responsible for managing about 214 acres of wildlands in the area.

About 80 percent of those areas were damaged by the fire, said Dennis Searles, president of the nearly 600-parcel homeowners’ association, about 500 of which were lost in the fire.

The association has been rethinking how it replants in the wake of the fires, keenly aware that, despite years of thinning efforts, the forested areas provided fuel for the firestorm as it ravaged the hillside neighborhood.

Douglas fir, in particular, are a species that got over-concentrated in certain areas. The association wants to discourage these trees in favor of hardwoods like oak.

“Firs go up like a Roman candle,” said Bruce McConnell, who lost his home in the fire and serves as vice president of the association. “On the night of the fire, I watched them literally explode.”

Too many trees, including Douglas fir and bay, have been allowed to grow closely together in a way that makes them thin, dense and more like brush than trees, Searles said.

“It’s really a question of getting back to vegetation management,” Searles said.

The association has been removing burned trees and restoring irrigation and native vegetation to the 20 acres of open space it’s responsible for along roadways in the area. It recently planted about 330 trees in these areas and the wildlands.

It’s also removing burned trees that might pose a danger to existing homes or lots in the process of rebuilding.

The restoration effort depends on the degree of damage. In areas where the fire was most intense, the land is so badly scorched that nothing may grow back for years. Those areas may just be allowed to become grassland, Searles said.

In others, however, nature is rebounding on its own.

“In many places, the regrowth is just phenomenal,” he said.

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

Special coverage

This story is part of a monthly series in 2018 chronicling the rebuilding efforts in Sonoma County’s four fire zones: Coffey Park, Fountaingrove, the greater Mark West area and Sonoma Valley.

Read all of the Rebuild North Bay coverage here.

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