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Rebuilding Sonoma County: A year after the Tubbs fire ravaged Fountaingrove, only six homes have been rebuilt

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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.

When Jennafer Carlin Rosset thinks about life since the Tubbs fire destroyed her family’s Fountaingrove home, she makes sure to note the silver linings.

Months of remodeling went down the drain when their home burned in October 2017, setting up a complicated rebuild. However, her thoughts now land on the dream home she’s building, with an art room for her, a music studio for her husband and a new backyard for their two kids.

Fountaingrove slowly has come back to life since the Tubbs fire tore through the upscale hillside neighborhood, killing two of residents, destroying 1,586 homes and charring thousands of acres. The blaze also temporarily contaminated parts of the local drinking water system with benzene, a cancer-causing compound the city spent months and millions of dollars to clean up.

Six homes have been rebuilt in Fountaingrove since the fires, according to city data obtained in mid-December. That’s one more home built since mid-November.

The number of homes under construction jumped from 222 in mid-November to 255 in mid-December, while the number of permit applications in that span surged from 435 to 512.

Still, the neighborhood’s overall comeback has been spotty compared to Coffey Park, where 1,500 homes were destroyed. As of mid-December, 83 Coffey Park homes had been rebuilt and 943 permit applications submitted.

The the uneven topography and scale of the larger plots in Fountaingrove hindered recovery efforts, especially compared to the flat terrain of Coffey Park.

Early debris removal efforts were concentrated in places with greater population density, so cleanup crews arrived in Fountaingrove later. Those who opted to rebuild in the area were more likely to favor custom plans, which take longer for city staffers to review.

David Guhin, director of the city’s Planning & Economic Development Department, said most of the recent permits for rebuilding in burned areas were in Fountaingrove, a signal that the enclave is on the upswing.

“We’ll probably see a lot more activity in the winter in terms of plan review and a lot more construction in the spring when the rains stop,” he said.

Guhin said the city’s planning staff operating the Resilient City Permit Center has processed over 1,500 permits this past year. It has been essential in aiding hundreds of homeowners rebuilding after the fire “turned them into developers overnight.”

“We’ve found that there’s not a cookie-cutter response or a cookie-cutter approach to dealing with the rebuild,” he said.

One source of potential worry for Fountaingrove residents like Carlin Rosset was the water. She lived in a part of Fountaingrove flagged by Santa Rosa officials for contamination. The Tubbs fire melted some of the polyethylene pipes in the area, contaminating water with benzene.

City officials initially were looking at $43 million to replace the area’s water system, but have since estimated the cost at about $6 million. But it’s unclear how much, if any, the Federal Emergency Management Agency will reimburse.

Recent tests have not showed benzene contamination, and the city has lifted a drinking water advisory.

PG&E has completed its infrastructure work in some pockets, but others are still waiting for crews to finish.

“We have been working in coordination with the city of Santa Rosa, who is also working in the area in order to partner on construction projects and restoration of the streets and sidewalks, where needed,” PG&E spokeswoman Deanna Contreras said.

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.

The city late this month opened a temporary $1 million fire station on Parker Hill Road to house an engine and three firefighters. The Tubbs fire destroyed the $4 million station on Newgate Court that was finished in 2015 and an older firehouse that previously stood on the Parker Hill Road site.

It’s unclear how other new development will fare in Fountaingrove.

A 237-unit townhouse project planned in the area has progressed slowly through the approval process over the past year. However, the Planning Commission rejected a proposal for a Marriott hotel near the site where two hotels burned in Fountaingrove last year.

For fire survivors, the recent wildfires in Butte and Ventura counties have served as reminders that losses will continue to be felt by others across the state. The fires, smoke and resulting news coverage are hard to ignore for those rebuilding, who know how stressful it can be to start over after a disaster.

“Right after the fire isn’t the worst time,” said Carlin Rosset, the Tubbs fire survivor. “It’s much harder later when you’re back in your new normal, whatever that looks like to you. You’ve got clothes. You’ve got stuff, but now the reality hits: This isn’t your home. This isn’t what you wanted.”

Last month, Carlin Rosset, her parents, sister and a friend — all of whom lost their Fountaingrove homes in last year’s firestorm — emerged from the movie theater to find smoke from Camp fire had blanketed the area.

“It looked almost exactly like it did after the fire,” Carlin Rosset said.

At the same time, the Woolsey fire burned near her hometown of Malibu. But Carlin Rosset stayed focused on the positives: She was able to reconnect with a ninth-grade teacher and childhood friends who lost their homes. In some cases she was able to provide friends with an extensive spreadsheet her husband prepared with information and questions to keep in mind during the rebuilding process.

“If I have to go through this experience, which nobody wants to, at least it feels good to be able to help some of my childhood friends,” Carlin Rosset said.

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports.

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