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Sonoma County leaders in fire recovery and response share their year-end outlook

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Special Coverage

For more stories on the rebuilding efforts in Sonoma County, go here.

Press Democrat reporters spoke this month with three civic leaders who have helped steer disaster response and recovery in our region. A common thread in their comments: the enormous challenges laid down by wildfires since 2017, the progress made to get survivors back on their feet, and the work still to be done to ensure residents and first responders are prepared for future emergencies. Here are excerpts of the three interviews, edited for clarity and brevity.

Shana Jones, 51, has been the chief of Cal Fire’s Sonoma-Lake-Napa unit since May 2016. As chief, Jones oversees more than 500 employees at the peak of fire season in Sonoma, Lake, Napa, Yolo, Colusa and Solano counties. The new year marks her 20th working for Cal Fire. Here, she reflects on the toll the past few years have had on her crews and looks ahead to next fire season. (Interviewed by Chantelle Lee)

Press Democrat: Were there any new challenges you had to deal with this year during the Kincade fire?

Jones: The evacuations — that was a very large amount of folks that were evacuated. That was a challenging piece.

This fire — it was very different from 2017 because of the timing, so we had a little bit more time to evacuate people. ... It was very difficult making that decision, but I strongly believe that we did the right thing to ensure the safety of the public so that our firefighters could do their jobs by protecting their homes.

PD: Over the past few years, we’ve seen some really challenging and devastating fires in the North Bay. What kind of toll has that taken on your firefighters?

Jones: Our fires have gotten larger over these past several years, which means that we need more troops on the ground and the duration of fighting the fire is extended. This has caused folks to be engaged in suppression efforts for a longer period of time, which takes them away from their homes for a longer period of time. It has had a strain, to some degree, on our employees.

Our strategic plan is to ensure the health and safety of our employees and it continues to be our goal for our employees to get the rest they need and the support they need.

PD: When you talk to other fire leaders, how does our region stack up in terms the experience with these mega fires?

Jones: We aren’t the only unit that has seen large, devastating fires.

I would say that fires are bad everywhere. Fire season is not a season anymore — it’s year-round. And it’s not just our mission to suppress fire — we also need the public’s help as well to do their part. Programs like readyforwildfire.org are educational tools that the public can utilize to help clear vegetation around their home to ensure that they’re doing some efforts as well so that we can work together.

PD: What concerns you when you look at future fire seasons?

Jones: My biggest concern is always the public and also my firefighters. Firefighters do amazing things. ... It does weigh on me — their health and safety, ensuring that they get the rest that they need.

Special Coverage

For more stories on the rebuilding efforts in Sonoma County, go here.

We’ve got a whole health and safety program within the department. They’re focusing on physical fitness, health monitoring, stress — they provide tools to our employees to help with stress.

We had employee support services at the Kincade incident, which is when any employee — whether you work for Cal Fire or any other local agency — has the ability to stop in and speak with a clinician on site.

We have recently been blessed with a budget change proposal that is allowing us to hire additional staff to help with the wellbeing of our employees.

As a unit chief, truly my job is to support my staff — to make sure that they’re trained and equipped to handle the emergency at hand every day.

Steve Rahmn, a project manager for W. Bradley Electric, took over in October as president of the neighborhood support group Coffey Strong. He assumed the reins of a mature, highly effective volunteer organization that has played a key role in a remarkably rapid rebuilding process. Rahmn talked about some of the challenges remaining to get Coffey Park across the finish line. (Interviewed by Austin Murphy)

PD: More than 90% of the Coffey Park lots destroyed in the fire are now in permit, under construction, or have been completed. Are you surprised by the speed of the rebuild?

Rahmn: It has far exceeded what anybody expected. Because no one expected the rebuild to go this fast, there’s been a lot of crisis-management decision making. But you have to move forward, even if all the decisions aren’t the right ones. You make the best decisions you can in the short amount of time you have available.

PD: Are you referring to the fact that city is going to have to dig up the streets again for the upcoming streetlight project?

Rahmn: Yeah, that’s a good example. But for the most part, everyone — the neighbors, the builders, the city — has been very accommodating and tolerant. And when you’re that accommodating, things are going to fall through the cracks.

PD: Aside from the infrastructure stuff — streetlights, the neighborhood park and entryway — what are some other Coffey Strong’s priorities in the upcoming year?

Rahmn: Right now, there are 93 lots unaccounted for in Coffey Park, meaning there has been no activity (since the fire). We got a list of those properties from the city, and back-checked them against our data base. We have contact info for 24 (of those homeowners). Without being invasive, we’re trying to figure out a way to reach out to these people, to ask them, more or less, “What can we help you with? What can the city help you with?” That’s the next step in recovery — finding the lost souls.

PD: What are you hearing about renters trying to get back home to Coffey Park?

Rahmn: What I’ve seen on social media is that there are a lot of people who want to move back to Coffey Park who are disappointed, because they were renting (before the fire) and they want to move back, but the owner has sold, or the owner opted to rent to somebody else. So they’ve been forced to go someplace else.

PD: I’m always struck by the level of commitment from each of Coffey Strong’s board members, most of whom have been there from the beginning.

Rahmn: Coffey Strong isn’t going to be around forever. It’s kind of like that movie, “We Were Soldiers.” We’re not leaving until the last person’s evacuated. We we’re not shutting it down until everybody’s home and the mission’s complete.

But it is important to get some new blood, some new ideas. For people who (Coffey Strong) helped get into their homes, it can be a great way to help your community, to see what it’s all about, and to pay it forward.

Michael Gossman is a deputy Sonoma County administrator and director of the Office of Recovery and Resiliency, which tracks and supports the ongoing community recovery from the 2017 wildfires. Gossman has been with the county for 19 years, but before the fires he was the chief financial officer for Sonoma Water, the county water agency. In the days following the fires, Gossman found his calling in disaster recovery and preparation. (Interviewed by Tyler Silvy)

PD: You oversee the Office of Recovery and Resiliency. What does resiliency mean, and who is it for?

Gossman: It’s really coming back better than we were before. And that’s for everybody. It’s really the ability to bounce back from future disasters.

PD: How do you measure resiliency? Have you seen progress from what you saw in the wake of the 2017 fires compared to what you saw during the Kincade fire this year?

Gossman: In terms of measuring resiliency, I don’t know if there’s a way. We identified several goals and initiatives. But it’s almost a gut feel thing, and we felt it in the Kincade fire and we felt it in the (February) flood. The community, I think felt like, “They’ve got this.”

PD: Have you had a chance to reflect on some successful work from the past year? If so, could you share your thoughts on where the county has seen success?

Gossman: We had several successful evacuation exercises that prepared not only individual communities, but disaster preparedness staff. I think Sonoma Ready Day, having happened right before the Kincade fire, was timely — it got the word out that emergency preparedness, and being ready for the next disaster, is everybody’s responsibility. In terms of recovery, I think we did make huge progress in 2019 in terms of getting homes rebuilt. Also, really working on defensible space, revamping websites ... we saw a lot of good legislation — extending (insurance additional living expenses) three years, which is now a mandate. Even though we’ve come so far since 2017, what we’re not doing is saying, “OK, wrote that manual” and putting it on the shelf.

PD: How about failures or challenges encountered this year. What are some of the biggest?

Gossman: I think we faced real challenges this year in terms of insurance companies being willing to (extend living expenses). Sometimes it felt like pushing that boulder up the hill. We did get that state audit report ... and it talked a lot about the failures we had in the past.

PD: When you look ahead, into 2020, there’s more work to do, certainly. What successes are left hanging out there for Sonoma County to capture? What could stand in the way?

Gossman: What I really want to see in 2020 is bringing in money from federal and state government to get a construction hardening program ... to reduce risk to the rest of the community. Vegetation management is a huge challenge. People need help in terms of resources to get that done. There’s a dearth of funding. We’re looking at state and federal grant programs.

PD: How different is this role from your previous work with the water agency? And did you ever envision charting a career in disaster recovery and resiliency?

Gossman: No. It’s so different. The job at the water agency was challenging. But you don’t have a lot of community engagement in that role. We’re working so directly with the community, having such a direct impact ... it’s way more challenging to me, but it’s way, way more satisfying.

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