Rebuild: Coffey Park recovery built on resilient neighbors

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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.

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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.

Effort to expedite permit approvals

In response, the city sharply increased staffing. Between March and July, the number of hours city workers devoted to permit processing and building inspections doubled. The city also started tracking permits to better show whether delays were caused by the city or by the private builders, architects and engineers.

While home construction was the main show in the neighborhood’s fire recovery, that effort shared the stage with other aspects of life in Coffey Park.

A major challenge for neighbors concerned what to do with burned and sagging concrete walls that lined a large section of Hopper Avenue. The walls, with blackened wood trim, belonged to the 42 property owners on whose backyards they sat. That was sad news to the homeowners, who thought the city owned the structures. They said they didn’t have the money to replace the walls.

The solution came when Florida-based AshBritt Environmental, a major debris removal company, offered to help. The company donated $450,000 and agreed to work with Coffey Strong and the Rebuild NorthBay Foundation. It’s a nonprofit founded by Darius Anderson, managing member of Sonoma Media Investments, owner of The Press Democrat.

In November, local government and neighborhood leaders held a “wall breaking” to mark the demolition of the broken walls. By December, the old structures had been removed.

The new walls will be 8 feet tall and built from a steel-truss and foam system covered with concrete. Builders expect to complete them in early 2019.

As home building progressed, neighbors found ways to get to better know each other. One popular low-key event was “Whine Wednesdays,” a weekly gathering on a neighborhood cul-de-sac where neighbors congregated to talk over a favorite beverage.

Realizing silver lining of fire

By far the neighborhood’s largest gathering was in October, when roughly 500 people gathered in Coffey Park to mark the first anniversary of the historic Tubbs fire. The crowd stood in silence at the reading of the names of their neighbors who had perished there in the blaze. And many applauded and cheered when a Coffey Strong leader Pamela Van Halsema promised a rebuilt neighborhood where residents had stronger ties “because we know each other now and we can call each other friend.”

Coffey Park residents also helped people whose homes had been destroyed by fires in other areas. Coffey Strong President Jeff Okrepkie went in late August to Redding to speak with survivors of the Carr fire. And in December a delegation from Coffey Park went with other Santa Rosa fire survivors to speak with some of those who lost homes in the Camp fire in Paradise. That fire, with its death toll now standing at 86, replaced the Tubbs fire as the most destructive in state history. Nearly 14,000 homes were burned in the Paradise inferno.

For Okrepkie, Coffey Strong really made a difference for neighbors to remain united and resilient as they trudged forward to recover this year.

“I think we’re a much closer neighborhood than we were before,” Okrepkie said.

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