Rebuild: Coffey Park recovery built on resilient neighbors
During the year, Coffey Park went from scorched wasteland to the heart of fire rebuilding in Sonoma County.
The compact northwest Santa Rosa neighborhood was reduced to blackened trees, twisted metal and ash after the Tubbs fire crossed Highway 101 and roared through tree-lined streets of mostly tract homes on Oct. 9, 2017. The fire claimed five lives in the neighborhood and burned over 1,300 single-family houses in Coffey Park and 200 more homes nearby.
In the first two months after the wildfire, little changed in the neighborhood’s wrecked appearance.
In November, workers began cleaning debris and removing about 1,500 burned cars from streets and lots. By late December, Pacific Gas & Electric crews set up temporary poles for power and streetlights, as fire survivors put up Christmas trees on their lots. And in early January 2018, in the presence of first responders and elected officials, Schaefer Elementary School students returned to their San Miguel Avenue campus, which had been closed for three months because of concerns about toxins rising from nearby burned lots causing unhealthy air quality.
Rebuilding finally begins
Finally, the first rebuilt home was taking shape in January. Contractors had saved the old foundation on the Kerry Lane property of fire survivor Dan Bradford. The framed walls stood alone in the midst of the burned neighborhood, with the closest surviving house at least three football fields away. Bradford’s home was completed in late May, and he became the first resident of Coffey Park to move into a rebuilt house. At the same time, the last burned home lot was cleared by a private contractor.
While home construction got off to a slow start following the fire, two factors proved key in the rebuilding moving forward.
First, the neighborhood’s flat ground and its large number of standard lots offered builders an easier construction effort than in the eastern hills of Fountaingrove. Secondly, Coffey Park residents organized soon after the fire to help each other rebuild. And the formation of the Coffey Strong neighborhood group helped fire survivors connect with contractors and compare what various builders offered.
Eventually, builders big and small signed contracts with property owners around the neighborhood. Some of the largest local contractors included Gallaher Homes, APM Homes, Shook & Waller Construction and Synergy Communities by Christopherson.
The bigger builders typically have relied on a selection of standard house designs from which fire survivors could choose. But others agreed to build based on custom plans from architects hired by property owners.
And some construction companies offered nontraditional approaches. Among them is Santa Rosa-based HybridCore Homes, which builds homes combining sections built in the factory with other rooms constructed on-site.
Despite the amount of builder interest, it took time for the vast rebuilding work to get underway. By late March 2018, construction crews had started on just 18 homes. That number jumped to 222 by late June and reached 520 by the end of September.
By late December, 640 homes were under construction in Coffey Park, from a total of 943 property owners who had received or were awaiting city building permits. That means seven of 10 burned properties there have at least started the permit process, the highest percentage of the four main neighborhood burn areas in Sonoma County.
The rebuilding efforts in Coffey Park have not been without frustrations. Some fire survivors said they switched builders after their first contractors made little progress. And others last spring complained the time to get building permits approved was too long.