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Just over a year after the October wildfires reduced 407 Sonoma Valley homes to ash, recovery continues slowly, hampered by the valley’s rugged terrain and the scattered, remote locations of many homes.

Most of the homes that burned were in Glen Ellen and Kenwood, which lost 237 and 139 homes, respectively. Now, 14 months later, one home is on the verge of completion in Glen Ellen, while 38 homes are under construction in that community and 32 are being built in Kenwood.

“Sonoma Valley has been a little slower to rebuild,” said valley resident Jennifer Gray Thompson, head of the Rebuild North Bay Foundation. “Our areas of devastation are rural and hilly.”

It’s easier to build on flat land because homes on level lots can be built on concrete slabs or simple crawl spaces, while houses on steep hills may need foundation walls or other costly systems to support the house.

The rural nature of the valley has also impacted the pace of rebuilding.

“Most of the Sonoma Valley has houses way out in the woods,” noted Caitlin Cornwall, research manager and biologist at the Sonoma Ecology Center. “There might be one house on 60 acres.”

Rebuilding bridges

Houses at the end of long, windy roads with private bridges damaged in the 2017 wildfires can be particularly difficult for trucks and workers to access.

“A driveway that goes to a rural house is likely to cross a stream. It takes a long time to repair bridges,” Cornwall said.

If a bridge is out, construction crews and trucks can’t reach the house to rebuild it, another delaying factor.

“Bridges are very expensive to rebuild. A lot of the bridges were private, so in order to begin their rebuild, some homeowners had to rebuild bridges,” Thompson said.

Since the fire, 14 applications have been filed for permits to rebuild bridges in Mark West Springs, six in Rincon Valley and one in Glen Ellen.

So far, one bridge has been rebuilt in Glen Ellen, eight in Mark West Springs and one in Rincon Valley.

Reaching milestones

Another delaying factor: the Sonoma Valley was last on the list for debris cleanup overseen by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Work began in February, one of the first and biggest milestones in recovery. The cleanup was completed by mid-June.

Another milestone came in November, when voters agreed to increase property taxes to help fund two local fire departments in the valley.

“That’s a milestone because people really understood that investing in our first responders is totally worth it,” Thompson said.

Measure T, the Glen Ellen Fire Protection parcel tax, passed with 76.7 percent of the vote in the Nov. 8 election. Measure X, the Schell Vista Fire Protection parcel tax, passed with 73.6 percent of the vote.

A third fire district tax, Measure Y, the Valley of the Moon parcel tax, failed narrowly. The measure needed 67 percent of the vote to pass, but got 66.5 percent.

Beacons of hope

For Arthur Dawson, a big moment was getting architect’s plans drawn up.

“It took a year to come up with this plan,” the Glen Ellen resident said.

Leaning forward in his seat on a bench in a quiet corner of Glen Ellen’s downtown, Dawson added, “We will be showing our architect’s finished progress plans to contractors to get a cost estimate. We’re excited.”

Overall, Dawson is hopeful. But the fire that destroyed the Butte County town of Paradise last month hit him and other valley residents hard, reviving memories of the October 2017 firestorm that tore through Sonoma County.

“It was PTSD for sure,” Dawson said. “It’s an exact repeat of what we went through.”

Although it was burning more than 100 miles away, the Camp fire sent heavy smoke into Sonoma County in early November. “It was a grey fog,” Dawson recalled, referring to both the air and his state of mind. “I did trauma therapy. That helped.”

Now, plans in hand, he’s focused on the rebuild.

“I always knew it would take a long time — 18 months to two years,” said Dawson, who was all-too familiar with construction timelines after remodeling his home in the past.

Watershed protection program

As heroic firefighters fought to save homes in Dawson’s Glen Ellen community and all over the county in October, the Sonoma Ecology Center sprang into action as well.

The fire was still raging when the center recognized another very real danger: Toxic ash and debris from burned structures could wash into nearby waterways, contaminating them, Cornwall said.

Quickly, the ecology center put together its response: First, mapping the burned structures that posed the biggest danger, then putting straw wattles and sandbags around those structures to soak up pollutants before they reached the streams.

The center’s entire staff, joined by a massive number of volunteers who worked nearly 2,000 hours, contained 249 burned houses and cars on 141 properties. That’s 80 percent of all burned structures within 200 feet of a Sonoma Valley waterway.

The effort began in November 2017 and ended in February, when the Army Corps of Engineers began cleanup.

Before the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board sampled water quality in locations including the Sonoma Creek during the winter, the center advised workers where they should test the water, Cornwall said.

Thanks to the efforts of the volunteers and the Ecology Center — plus the paucity of rain that winter, causing little runoff — “the contaminants didn’t get into the streams,” the biologist said.

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