First person to rebuild after Wine Country fires finds frontier of hope


Lizzie Johnson | June 30, 2018 | Updated: June 30, 2018 11:44 a.m.

The first night in the first house to rise in Coffey Park was soundless, the way it is when a neighborhood becomes a ghost town.

Dan Bradford’s street in Santa Rosa is so bare that not even the robins have returned. Their nesting trees burned like great candles in last October’s firestorm. Gone are the barking dogs, the teenagers shooting baskets, the backfiring motorcycles — the soundtrack of a normal suburban subdivision.

Bradford’s three-bedroom house on Kerry Lane was the first to rise from the ashes of the Wine Country fires. Bradford, 61, had lived there for less than a year when the Tubbs Fire raced west from Calistoga and blitzed Santa Rosa, killing 24 people in all and leveling 4,655 homes.

In Santa Rosa, just 331 homes are back under construction, or less than 10 percent of those destroyed. But Bradford began rebuilding in November, less than a month after the fires hit. The flames hadn’t damaged his foundation, so he opted to use a private contractor to clear his lot instead of the more affordable U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. That sped things up.

“At a certain point, instead of remembering what you had, you start to replace it with what would be rebuilt,” he said. “It was an incredible process.”

Now Bradford lives in a middle-class disaster zone. He has no neighbors around, just empty lots. He doesn’t worry about street parking or mowing the grass, because there are no cars and the yard is a brown patch. From his living room window, he will bear witness to Coffey Park’s slow rise.

Bradford never thought he would be the first to move back. But he didn’t want to live in a rental for two years, and so he pushed ahead, hard, while becoming an inspiration and a curiosity.

For months, vehicles loitered at his curb as drivers gaped at the framework, then the drywall, then the complete house. It went up so quickly that, more than once, construction had to pause for city and fire officials to pass new building ordinances. Every time, the gossip churned: Was the foundation flawed? Were the materials fire-retardant? How was the house already almost finished?

But the house trimmed in green kept going up. It now sits on a compact dirt lot, barren until Bradford plants new grass and trees this summer. Just before Memorial Day, Bradford moved in. A few weeks later, a second home nearby was finished.

On an overcast day in May, city and state officials hosted a ribbon-cutting in Bradford’s driveway. Surrounded by TV cameras, Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey called it the “first of what will be many, many rebuilt homes.”

“It’s just a big sign of hope,” Bradford said. “This catastrophic event occurred, and this is proof that it can be overcome and you can move back into your house. You can start to resume your life, similar to what you had before. Maybe not the same, but similar. You can move forward.”

At Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, where Bradford works as a respiratory therapist, his colleagues jokingly call him “Mr. Sonoma County.” In his department, employees bring in ice cream any time they’re featured in the news. Bradford has lost count of how many frozen cookie sandwiches he owes.

When the politicians and the news crews left, Bradford closed the new front door of his new home and settled into his new normal.

He microwaved frozen enchiladas for dinner. He realized he didn’t have measuring spoons, so he added them to his shopping list, beneath cups, printer ink, paper files, and a garage work bench. Nearly every day, he shops at Kohl’s — the department store that closed for four months after being damaged in the Tubbs Fire. He wants to give it as much business as possible, and has a stack of coupons to use.

Even with a new house, there is so much missing. It doesn’t smell like home, not yet, but of new leather and fresh wood, though the scent is far better than smoke.

The hallways are bare. Bradford wants to replace the photos that once lined the walls. He has a few prints: one of a moose wandering through an aspen grove, another of the Sacramento River in Redding. He has more furniture to buy. It will take time. He keeps telling himself that.

Slowly, the trauma of the historic firestorm has begun to fade. So have the memories of what Coffey Park once was. From his backyard, Bradford can see across the flat expanse of graded lots to the park. He never realized it was so close. Children don’t play there anymore.

Sometimes he forgets that he doesn’t live way out in the country, that Coffey Park is in Santa Rosa’s urban core. The city hasn’t finished installing street lights in the neighborhood, and so the nights bring an inky darkness. He can see the stars again.

“You see houses popping up blocks away,” Bradford said. “You had no idea that a house was there before. Now you can see everything. It’s different, for sure.”

The streets are so empty that it takes Bradford no more than 15 minutes to drive to work. The bottleneck of school drop-offs and morning work commutes has disappeared. The familiar landmarks along his drive are gone, too. Bradford used to turn at Hopper Avenue and Kerry Lane, by the big tangerine-colored house bordered by a white picket fence. The fence is still there. The house isn’t.

The cars are still coming. On a recent Sunday, 150 to 200 people drove past. They brought fruit baskets, flower bouquets, balloons and houseplants. Many had tears in their eyes. Someone put a single rose in a water bottle on the “welcome home” mat on Bradford’s front porch. He found it there when he got home — a word that still feels strange to say.

The return of the first home was “an uplifting thing,” said Mark Mitchell, the owner of Lake County Contractors, the company that rebuilt Bradford’s house. “Nobody wants to be the guinea pig. People see us and say, ‘These guys already built a house? How the hell did they do it?’ If we can do it, they can do it. It gives people hope that it can happen.”

Bradford wants to organize a big picnic for his neighbors. He’ll cook meat in his new smoker and buy a case of wine. Anyone is welcome. He wants to lift them up, to show that they can regain some of what was lost.

Each day, the cacophony of work crews and heavy machinery grows a little louder. Other houses are rising. Bradford doesn’t mind the noise.

“You move forward,” he said.

Lizzie Johnson is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @LizzieJohnsonnn

A milestone for Santa Rosa: First home rebuilt in Coffey Park after fires


Michelle Robertson , SFGATE

May 25, 2018 | Updated: May 25, 2018 5:55 p.m.

A sign of rejuvenation has sprung up in Coffey Park. It is brown and green and new, with gleaming windows and freshly polished doorknobs. It is the first home to be rebuilt after the North Bay fires devastated the Santa Rosa neighborhood last year.

The city of Santa Rosa celebrated the completed Kerry Lane house with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Friday. Its owner, Dan Bradford, moved in that morning.

More than 2,000 homes and structures were destroyed across the North Bay when wildfires broke out in early October. Coffey Park was particularly hard hit, and aerial images of the destroyed neighborhood became a national symbol of the devastation wrought by the firestorm.

Sonoma County suffered by far the greatest destruction from the fires: 3,963 homes were destroyed and 7,766 suffered damage, which together accounted for $2.6 billion in property losses.

Rebuilding has been a slow, arduous process for those who lost their homes in the tragedy.

“Little did I know when I left here on October 9, it would take me eight months to get back in,” Bradford told ABC7. He lived in a small rental while awaiting the completion of his house and the securing of funds needed for construction, which began in December.

Bradford was luckier than some. The fires did not contaminate his home’s original foundation, whereupon his new house sits. Everything else is brand new.

State Assemblymember Marc Levine, who represents Marin and southern Sonoma counties and attended the Friday celebration, said Bradford’s house “is among many milestones we will celebrate as a community in the coming years.”

More than 160 homes are currently under construction in Santa Rosa.

Kathleen Pender, a San Francisco Chronicle columnist, contributed to this report.

Michelle Robertson is an SFGATE staff writer. Email her at or find her on Twitter at @mrobertsonsf.

First rebuilt home in Sonoma County completed in Coffey Park




Dan Bradford was among the last people to move into Coffey Park before an October firestorm ravaged the tract neighborhood in northwest Santa Rosa.

On Friday he became the first person to move back into a house rebuilt atop the original foundation of his Kerry Lane home.

The housewarming was overwhelming, he said.

Bradford, who moved in a year before the October wildfires, on Friday found himself the center of attention as a crowd of neighbors, government staff members, journalists and elected leaders gathered around him. The group came together to mark the completion of the first rebuilt home in the burned neighborhoods of Sonoma County.

“Today we’re celebrating new beginnings, as we enter the first of what will be many, many rebuilt homes,” Mayor Chris Coursey said before a row of television cameras.

Bradford, 61, a respiratory therapist at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, thanked neighbors, co-workers and city officials for helping him put his life back together. But his most effusive praise was given to the workers and owners of Lake County Contractors, his Lakeport-based builder.

“You guys created magic by doing this,” he said, standing on the sidewalk in front of his new home, “and I’m hoping that all the other contractors around here continue to do the same thing.”

Nearly eight months have passed since the North Bay suffered the most destructive wildfires in state history. The October fires claimed 40 lives and burned 6,200 homes in a four- county region. Residential insurance claims have totaled $8.4 billion.

When workers began reconstructing Bradford’s home in late December, excavators and dump trucks were still clearing away ash and fire debris throughout Coffey Park. But on Friday at least two dozen rebuilt houses were rising within eyesight of his place.

By Monday, workers had started construction on 125 homes in the neighborhood — roughly a tenth of the nearly 1,260 homes that burned there, according to the city.

Coursey noted that being first in the rebuild process meant encountering “unforeseen bumps in the road.” He thanked Bradford and Lake County Contractors partner Mark Mitchell with prodding the city to find solutions to such problems.

“You made our response to this disaster better by being that trailblazer,” the mayor told Bradford. “And by doing that you helped your neighbors. You helped a lot of people you don’t even know follow your trail, so thank you for that.”

Also on hand to congratulate Bradford Friday were Rep. Mike Thompson and Sonoma County Supervisor Susan Gorin. Both suggested the day was a celebration not only for one homeowner but also for an entire community.

“This is just the first step in saying that we’re back,” said Thompson, D-St. Helena. “We’re back and you’re going to see improvements like this every day from now on.”

At 2:40 a.m. Oct. 9, as flames were closing in on a neighbor’s property, Bradford escaped his home with his two hunting dogs, an English setter named Blaze and an English pointer named Abby. When he returned later that morning, he couldn’t believe the devastation that confronted him.

“I had a big lump in my throat,” he recalled. “Everything’s gone.”

For his new home, he kept the same foundation and exterior dimensions, but his builder helped him redesign the home to a more modern look. It includes an open floor plan for his living room, dining area and kitchen.

He acknowledged that moving away from the county now would be a bit harder for him.

“I’ve made some really strong friendships out of this,” he said of the last eight months.

Lake County Contractor’s Mitchell said he and partners Aaron Wooden and Rob Williams have completed or have under construction nearly three dozen homes on sites burned from Lake County wildfires, including the 2015 Valley fire. The company is on track to start about a dozen homes this year in Sonoma County.

Along with guidance on the rebuilding process, Mitchell said he surprised the soft-spoken Bradford with a prediction last year about the attention he would receive by becoming the first homeowner to rebuild in Coffey Park.

He said he advised Bradford, “Be prepared to be a rock star.”

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 707-521-5285 or On Twitter @rdigit.

Rebuilding Sonoma County: May brings milestones in Coffey Park




The first home stands rebuilt in Coffey Park, and a few hundred more are either under construction or soon to get started there.

The long-awaited rebuild has begun in the northwest Santa Rosa neighborhood. The pace may still be slower than many hoped for, but construction has increased markedly from April.

As of Monday, builders had started to construct 125 homes in the neighborhood, compared to about 50 a month earlier, according to the city’s Resilient Permit Center. The activity amounts to more than 80 percent of the homes that currently are being rebuilt in all the Santa Rosa neighborhoods that were scorched by the October wildfires.

Overall, Coffey Park homeowners since the fire had applied to rebuild 276 of the nearly 1,260 homes burned there. By Monday the city had issued 197 of those requested permits.

Meanwhile, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. reports it has received 370 applications for new service from customers with a Coffey Park address.

Also as part of the rebuild, PG&E in May continued to replace underground utilities in the neighborhood. Since the beginning of April, it has completed about 14,000 feet of new trenches, which hold electric, natural gas and other utilities.

PG&E is on track to dig nearly 23 miles of trenches for such utilities in the burned neighborhoods around Santa Rosa, including Mark West and Hidden Valley. The work in Coffey Park is slated to be wrapped up by the end of the year.

Here is a recap of other Coffey Park news for the past month:

Putting back the first home

Last week city and neighborhood leaders celebrated the completion of Coffey Park’s first rebuild, a three-bedroom, two-bath home on a cul-de-sac west of the neighborhood park.

The rebuilt, single-story house on Kerry Lane features the same exterior shape and was built on the same foundation as the original home of more than 30 years. The contractor, Lake County Contractors of Cobb, started replacing the structure shortly before the New Year.

It was the first rebuild project to receive a building permit in the city and the first to be brought to completion.

Dan Bradford, the homeowner, expressed gratitude for those who rebuilt his house and for the neighbors who cheered him on during construction.

“I’ve made some really strong friendships out of this,” Bradford said.

The last lot cleared

May marked another milestone: the completion of hauling away ash and fire rubble from the single-family home sites of Coffey Park.

A lot on Waring Court was the last one in the neighborhood to have an excavator scoop up bricks, broken metal and other bits of debris from the Tubb’s fire in October. It was one of three lots cleared in early May by a private contractor.

“It’s time for the next chapter,” said Michael Wolff, CEO of Wolff Contracting in Santa Rosa, who oversaw the work. “It feels like now we’re really into the building phase.”

While the cleanup of small residential lots ended, one final project of debris removal remained at the nearby Hopper Lane Apartments. A city official said the Hopper Avenue complex would be the last of the burned apartment and commercial sites in the city to undergo such a cleaning.

For many, the ash and rubble were more than eyesores. They were painful reminders of the trauma and loss suffered in the neighborhood. For them, the cleanup provided relief.

Lawsuit over The Orchard

Across the SMART train tracks from Coffey Park, residents of The Orchard mobile home park continue to deal with the loss of nearly 70 homes burned in the October fire. Many residents say the rebuild process is taking too long and they blame the park owner, Hometown America, a Chicago-based company that owns mobile home parks in 13 states.

The 223-unit park, which caters to residents aged 55 and above, sits at Piner Road and Pinercrest Drive.

After the fire, Hometown offered to help residents buy new manufactured homes at discounted prices. It said residents would save more than $100,000 on homes the company estimated would cost $272,000 to $311,000.

But a group of residents in May filed a class-action lawsuit against Hometown. Those residents contended they still had no idea when they could obtain their new homes, and they noted the company had notified them that on Sept. 1 fire survivors would have to resume paying their monthly space rents, which average about $750.

“When September comes, I’ll be paying two rents,” resident Cam Folks said at the news conference announcing the lawsuit filed in Sonoma County Superior Court.

Hometown co-president and chief operating officer Stephen Braun said the company was working to get residents back into the park as quickly as possible and for “the most reasonable costs.” The biggest challenge, he said, involved finding enough builders to replace the residents’ two-car garages, which need to be built on site.

Hometown likely will lose money on each unit it provides for the residents, Braun. Nonetheless, he said, “Seeing the devastation, the right thing to do was to get these people back into houses.”

City relaxes setback rules

When seeking to rebuild, a number of Coffey Park residents found themselves unable to change the shape of their homes.

In response, the city Planning Commission agreed in May to permit its staff to waive certain setback rules and allow more flexibility.

Some residents learned their final recorded subdivision maps featured rules about permitted setbacks and building envelopes that were specific for each lot. A staff member called the rules a kind of “custom zoning” that precluded the city planners from allowing many changes to the size and placement of homes.

Instead of making each property owner go through the time and expense of hiring a civil engineer or surveyor to propose new setbacks, city staff brought forward a solution that allowed the city engineer, David Guhin, to make them on behalf of residents.

“For everybody who is trying to rebuild, this is going to make the process simpler, more reliable, faster and more friendly to people who are trying to start a new dream,” Planning Commission Chairman Casey Edmonson said.

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 707-521-5285 or On Twitter @rdigit.

First home rebuilt in Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park after North Bay fires
by Cornell Barnard
Thursday, May 24, 2018

SANTA ROSA, Calif. (KGO) — The first home in Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park neighborhood has been rebuilt after the devastating wildfires swept through the North Bay last October.

It’s a huge milestone for the North Bay. The 2017 wildfires burned thousands of homes to the ground.

Dan Bradford’s home on Kerry Lane is the first to be rebuilt.

“Little did I know when I left here on October 9, it would take me eight months to get back in,” said Bradford.

Bradford officially moves in on Friday. He rebuilt on the same spot his old house once stood. He was one of the lucky few homeowners able to reuse the original foundation of his house because it was not contaminated by the firestorm.

Everything about the house is brand new, from door knobs to the kitchen sink.

“It’s exciting to have hot and cold water and a kitchen sink, it’s great,” Bradford said.

Bradford and his two dogs have been renting a small place since the fires.

Construction started last December but there was lots of bureaucratic red tape to navigate.

“It’s a big, prolonged process of getting funds to pay the contractors. That’s the most frustrating because they work hard,” Bradford said.

In Coffey Park, signs of life are now everywhere. There are 167 new homes currently under construction across the city.

On Friday afternoon, Santa Rosa city leaders will hold a ribbon cutting outside of Bradford’s home to commemorate the first home rebuilt.

First home rebuilt in Coffey Park approved for move-in this week
By: Justine Waldman
Updated: May 23, 2018 07:35 PM PDT

SANTA ROSA (KRON) – A huge milestone in Santa Rosa on Wednesday as the first home rebuilt in Coffey Park after last year’s devastating fires got approved to be moved into.

It’s the little things that Dan Bradford appreciates the most about his new house.

“Five months to go from my foundation to this, is pretty amazing,” he said.

In October, the vicious fires burned his Coffey Park home to the ground.

He lost everything.

“My wife’s ashes. I will never get those back. Stuff like that is irreplaceable,” he said.

This year, KRON4 watched Dan rebuild his dream home at 1613 Kerry Lane.

The new house just passed inspections, and Dan got the nod he can officially move in on Friday.

“It’s been a long haul, been a long point from the fire and sleeping ack in the room that I was in when I left, I think there will be some emotionality there,” he said.

Everything is brand new.

The couch still has tags on it and the mattresses are wrapped in plastic.

The walk-in closet needs all new clothes to hang in there.

While the construction with Lake County contractors went smoothly, the slowest part of the process, Dan says, is the payments.

“The flow of money back to me, that was cumbersome,” he said.

Dan is very proud of the accomplishments it to took to get here, and how his community is slowly rising up from the ashes.

“The people is what makes the neighborhood and they will be back,” he said.

Dan is already here.

Now Dan has to personalize his property and turn this house into a home.

Susan Gorin aches to fast-forward to well past next year — when she once again has a home on what is now an ashy lot.

Peter Alan wants to turn the rubble of his Craftsman art studio into something meaningful. Lisa Mast longs to look out her window and see something across the street besides blackened reminders of the flames that swept through before sunrise Oct. 9.

That was the night, six months ago, when hot Diablo winds blasted across the hills from the east, snatched up some sparks and rained fear and sorrow on the North Bay.

Sonoma County took the brunt of it, and its biggest city, Santa Rosa, suffered most of all. Gorin’s lot and thousands of others are still empty. Tens of thousands of people — the county has not tracked exact numbers — were displaced by the fires, and many of them remain in rentals, emergency housing and government trailers. Homeless camps with hundreds of people mark the southern city limits of Santa Rosa.

Today, Sonoma remains a county under fire.

“I have never experienced a disaster quite like this,” said Gorin, a Sonoma County supervisor. “The seven stages of grief are very much evident here. This will be with us for a long, long time.”

These are the stories of some of those who lost nearly all they once knew. Six months in, they realize — better than they did in October — they may never get it back.

Supervisor Susan Gorin stands next to where her home used to stand at Crestridge Place in the Los Guilicos neighborhood in Santa Rosa. | Santiago Mejia / San Francisco Chronicle

Rebuilding a life

It was in the hills near Calistoga that the worst of the October blazes sparked: the Tubbs Fire.

It fed off the air, carrying dinner plate-size embers 12 miles across Sonoma County in four hours. The fire consumed 36,807 acres and destroyed 5,636 houses, businesses and other structures, most of them in Santa Rosa. It was joined by several other blazes throughout the North Bay that, together with the Tubbs, killed 41 people — the highest death toll of any wildfire disaster in the state’s history.

The fires had been burning for three days when Gorin, who was in an emergency Board of Supervisors meeting, received a text message from state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg.

“Is this your house?” it read. He was on a tour of the evacuated Oakmont neighborhood, a newer subdivision of million-dollar houses bordering Trione-Annandel State Park in the hills east of Santa Rosa.

The lawn of Gorin’s three-bedroom home was smoking. McGuire saved Gorin’s car and her husband’s road bike, along with some jewelry, family photos, clothes and computers that he hauled out in pillowcases, before the flames got there.

The house was incinerated. So was Gorin’s former home in the Fountaingrove neighborhood just to the north — an obliteration of 25 years of memories between the two.

“It amazes me how completely a fire can consume a house full of furniture and photos and books and dishes, reducing it to virtually nothing,” Gorin said. “You could see the metal wiring from the house, the hulks of the washing machines and appliances. You could see where the china fell down and shattered. It was a total loss. It destroyed everything.”

Crown Hill Drive (top), Hemlock Court and Blackhawk Circle, areas in Santa Rosa devastated by the Tubbs Fire. The before-fire images were captured from Google Earth Pro; the photos of the devastation were taken by Santiago Mejia of The Chronicle.

Her husband suggested living in an RV on their lot. That’s what others who lost their homes have done. But the refrigerator would have been tiny, and outings to the septic tank station frequent. Gorin didn’t want to do that. “I can’t function in an RV on this lot,” she told him.

So they’re in a rental unit in Oakmont near the home where Gorin’s mother-in-law lives. Insurance pays their rent.

Gorin is lucky, she knows. But the rental is not home. It doesn’t have sweeping views of the state park. There aren’t fruit and oak trees out back. And it’s not as comfortable — not like their old place. The furniture and family heirlooms they moved from Fountaingrove to Oakmont are gone. So are their clothes.

Gorin spends her days slogging through mind-numbing paperwork, applications and meetings with fire victims planning their rebuilds, even as she plans her own. They tell her there is nowhere to live, that this — trying to rebuild a life — is harder than they thought.

She knows how it feels. She has credibility with them; she’s going through the same things.

“I set aside one afternoon where I could go sift through the ashes of my home and use a whisk broom to sweep things away,” Gorin said. “I wanted to sit there and cry over what I lost.”

But she added, “I’m grateful I have the capacity and time and empathy to give. There are so many still struggling.”

Mark Mitchell (left) and Aaron Wooden in Santa Rosa’s devastated Coffey Park neighborhood. They own a contracting company that framed the first house in the neighborhood after the fire. | Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle

Nothing is quick

The wildfires didn’t discriminate. They destroyed a low-income mobile home park near Highway 101. They destroyed senior retirement homes and the mansions that dotted the hills above Santa Rosa. Thousands of rental units — the exact number of apartments and houses is unknown — were wiped out.

Few residences have risen from the ashes.

Only 54 building permits had been issued in Sonoma County as of March 27 for burned-out lots. Even if they plan to pull a permit, many are agonizing over how to pay for their house reconstruction — more than 40 percent of people who lost homes were underinsured.

Until 2013, Sonoma County was building only 500 new housing units annually. In total, when accounting for job gains and fire losses, it will need an additional 26,000 units by 2020.

The county opened a resilient permit center, a separate department for fire survivors trying to rebuild their homes. Officials lowered fees and cut red tape, promising to issue permits within a week of application, despite criticism that doing so could result in homes being rebuilt in fire-prone areas.

Mark Mitchell, co-owner of Lake County Contractors, has a good guess of what recovery will look like. The 52-year-old has an unusual goal — he strives to rebuild the first home to go up after every major state disaster. He helped erect the first one after the massive Lake County wildfire in 2015. That was shortly after he started his business. Now, he’s finishing the first one in Santa Rosa’s devastated Coffey Park neighborhood. Forty-five clients are on a waiting list for his services.

“It never happens as quickly as people think,” Mitchell said. “By the end of this year, I would imagine less than 10 percent of the total losses will be rebuilt. Next year, it will be bigger. And the year after, when big builders start buying up lots with premade designs, it will skyrocket. We saw that in Lake County. It wasn’t until other houses started rising that people saw there was possibility.”

Half the clients he works with give up before anything is built. They aren’t ready for the barrage of choices, and if they’re couples, they can’t always agree: Paint? Tiles? Windows? Floor plan? Carpeting? Cabinetry?

“All of these people are just thrown into it,” Mitchell said. “They don’t have a choice. Most of them don’t want that choice. They liked where they were, and they don’t want the additional stress of building a home on top of losing everything.”

The county has made the process easier. Mitchell is able to submit applications electronically — something many counties don’t do. But there have been holdups. Like when Fire Department officials delayed a home he’s building in Coffey Park. The sewer laterals in the neighborhood weren’t big enough to support the now-required fire sprinklers. It took a few weeks, but they sorted it out.

Everyone is figuring out the best way to build, Mitchell tells clients. When you’re the first, there are bound to be delays. But for some people, being the guinea pig is too overwhelming.

“We’ve had clients come to us and sign design contracts,” he said. “A week later, they will decide they aren’t going to rebuild. It won’t be one size fits all. It’s a stressful process after you’ve already been through enough.”

Peter Alan closes hoses on his FEMA trailer at the county fairgrounds where he has been living since his studio burned. | Lea Suzuki / The Chronicle

A trailer isn’t home

Many who were renting when the flames came can only wish they were burdened with too many choices. With nowhere to go, and no way to pay for housing, thousands of them — the best estimate officials can come up with — are stuck in limbo lodging.

Within three weeks of the fires’ ignition, the Federal Emergency Management Agency received more than 4,500 unemployment claims. Most of those people had already been living paycheck to paycheck, getting by on cheap rent. Some have moved to the Central Valley or out of state to find affordable housing, saying goodbye to a county where the rental vacancy rate went from just 2 percent before the fires to zero afterward — and the average rent has gone up more than 30 percent.

A few who didn’t leave, couldn’t stay with friends and family or weren’t able to find a rental wound up in temporary housing from FEMA. The biggest colony is at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds RV Park, where all of the 101 brand-new trailers brought in by the agency are filled.

The trailers are part of a disaster-recovery effort that has housed about 400 people in apartments, trailers or modular housing units. People can stay up to 18 months.


The population at the RV park includes people who were living on the margins of the economy in jobs like housekeeping, where a couple of missed paychecks always meant trouble. Or artists who live commission to commission, like 49-year-old Peter Alan.

After flames gobbled his studio in Glen Ellen southeast of Santa Rosa, he scored the smallest model FEMA trailer, the one with a single bed, kitchenette, bathroom and a fold-down table. Rent and utilities are free while Alan rebuilds his art career working in paint, multimedia and sculpture. He estimates he lost $120,000 in art and $18,000 in supplies in the fire.

“I’m truly grateful to FEMA for this space, but I really do need to get a studio and a place of my own,” he said. “It’s been an adjustment. The energy around the park here can be abrasive, often very noisy, and there’s no place to do my work in a trailer this small.”

“I’m truly grateful to FEMA for this space, but I really do need to get a studio and a place of my own,” he said. “It’s been an adjustment. The energy around the park here can be abrasive, often very noisy, and there’s no place to do my work in a trailer this small.”

He’s hoping to open a studio with two other local artists and create sculptures and other works from fire debris. For now, Alan is storing ash and gray-black fragments from his destroyed studio — “not from anywhere else, to be respectful” — in his mother’s garage in Santa Rosa.

“I don’t want people to be sad when they see it,” he said. “I want this art to be healing.”

Across the RV park from Alan’s trailer lives Daisy Carreno, 35. She would be on the street if not for her FEMA rig.

Carreno, her husband and their three children all scrambled out of their rented house in Coffey Park just as the Tubbs Fire consumed it. Her husband went back into the flames to rescue their car. But that was it.

Carreno is a house cleaner and her husband works as a printmaker — but they still can’t afford what they’ve been able to find. Every two-bedroom place costs $2,500 a month or more, and they’d barely been able to cover the $1,700 on the house that burned.

All that remains of their former home is a handful of half-melted bracelets and necklaces and the center ring of John Denver’s “Back Home Again” LP. That all sits on a shelf in the trailer like talismans.

“We are going to frame this when we move into our real home,” Carreno said in Spanish, touching the LP fragment tenderly. “My daughter says it doesn’t matter what the roof is. The home is where the family is.”

Keith Faber and son King, 3, talk outside their tent at a homeless camp in Santa Rosa, where they lived until they moved to a shelter recently. They lived in Coffey Park. | Lea Suzuki / The Chronicle

From a home to a tent

They are the unluckiest of the survivors.

Isaak Faber has lived in a lot of places during his six years of life — maybe half a dozen as his family followed jobs and circumstances around the area. For most of the past six months, home was a tent pitched in the middle of scores of other tents. He knew it had something to do with that fire he had to run from with his mom and dad in October.

Isaak goes to kindergarten in Santa Rosa on the other side of town from his burned house and watches other kids go back to homes when the school bell rings. One chilly recent day, he nudged a little red toy sports car with his foot down the dirt pathway at the homeless camp in south Santa Rosa. It was what passed for fun for the afternoon. It wasn’t really fun.

“I just want to go home to my real home,” he said, staring at his shoes. Isaak’s father, 38-year-old Keith Faber, hugged him for a long moment.

“Soon, son, soon,” Faber said.

A few days ago, the Fabers found a spot in a shelter. It’s still not home. They’ve got a lot of company in their misery.

Sonoma County has the overwhelming majority of the homeless population of the North Bay, much of it in and around Santa Rosa, but before the fires it had been making progress. The last street count, taken in 2017, found the homeless population down 2.4 percent from the year before, at 2,835 people. The fires ruined that.

The county’s latest annual homeless count, taken in February, hasn’t been released, but those who did the counting are sure it will be up substantially. All 1,200 beds at the county’s homeless shelters are full.

Homeless camps beneath Highway 101 overpasses mushroomed into huge sprawls shortly after the fires. When police cleared them out in November, campers migrated to southern Santa Rosa, where the existing small settlements swelled from about 60 people to more than 250 in tents, cars and RVs. This is where Isaak was living.

“It’s cold, wet and it’s hard being here,” Faber said shortly before moving into the shelter. He stays with Isaak and his three other children while his girlfriend works at a bakery.

“The house we rented in Coffey Park was a great deal and had enough room for my family. And we got it for $500 a month,” Faber said. “But I can’t find anything like that now, and we don’t bring in that much money.”

Jennielynn Holmes, director of shelter and housing for Catholic Charities, the foremost homeless-aid organization in Sonoma County, helped lead an effort this winter and spring to find roofs for Faber and about 110 others now living in the encampments behind a Dollar Tree store. A one-stop navigation center — referrals only, no shelter beds — managed to steer nearly 30 people inside by early April, and to work up individual shelter or housing plans for another 45. But hundreds, and possibly thousands, of homeless people displaced by the fires remain in streets and fields throughout the North Bay.

“A lot of us never thought it would be a fire that would cause this much damage, throw so many people outside,” Holmes said. “I always thought it would be an earthquake. It’s just been heartbreaking. We had a housing crisis on Oct. 7 (the day before the fires). And now it’s worse.

“It’s going to be a three- to five-year recovery period for the most vulnerable people.”

The homes off Barnes Road in Santa Rosa were destroyed in the Tubbs Fire. | Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle

Stress can overwhelm

The temporary digs with no certain future, the aggravation of learning how to rebuild a house, the nightmares of flames — they’re all things people have to adjust to. It’s not going easily.

For Karen Erickson, the past six months have been a slow spiral. She lost her Fountaingrove home. She lost her neighbors, many of whom have decided not to rebuild.

“It’s really hard because there are so many things to do,” Erickson said. “You feel the stress, and like there’s this time crunch. You have to deal with the cleanup, where you are going to live, whether you are going to be kicked out or not. It’s a real challenge. I talk to my friends and neighbors, and they’re struggling more than they were at the beginning.”

Dr. Ellen Barnett has been hearing it from her patients. The family practitioner, 72, runs a small medical clinic in Santa Rosa. Her waiting room is nearly always full, and most of the people she treats are traumatized. They have anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder, or are struggling with survivor’s guilt. So Barnett writes counseling referrals — more than she ever has before.

It’s a mental health crisis that is sweeping the county. Grief and trauma have had a domino effect, hitting just as the signs reading, “Love is Stronger than Smoke,” and “Sonoma County Strong,” have started to disappear. Many thought they would be moving on with their lives by now. They’re not.

“Every single person in this county was literally, and is continuing to be, traumatized by the fires,” Barnett said. “In some ways, it’s almost easier for some of us — not all of us, but some of us — who lost our homes. We know what we experienced. We have a list of things to do.

Family practitioner Dr. Ellen Barnett, who lost her home in the Tubbs Fire, stands in her Integrative Medical Clinic in Santa Rosa. | Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle

“My experience, as a physician, is that it is very difficult for people that didn’t lose their homes to acknowledge they were traumatized. They feel so guilty, that they shouldn’t feel sad, because so many people lost more.”

The Tubbs Fire destroyed Barnett’s home near the Safari West wildlife preserve in the hills north of Santa Rosa. She and her husband, Dr. Bob Dozer, 68, had lived there since 1984. They were both on-call back then — he in Napa County, she in Sonoma County — and it was halfway between the two hospitals. The couple raised three children there, carving tick marks for each year’s growth on the coat closet door.

The night of the fire, they smelled smoke and evacuated to a friend’s home in nearby Larkfield-Wikiup. Later, when the flames threatened that community, too, they drove to their Santa Rosa clinic and slept on the exam tables and in massage chairs. The next morning, they started working, helping to rewrite lost prescriptions.

“I don’t think anybody knows what the full impact of this disaster is on our community yet,” Barnett said. “What is actually going on here in Sonoma County? And what are we in denial about? What are we missing? Those are the bigger questions for me. They’re the hardest questions.”

Lisa Mast removes plastic covering a heating vent in her home on Randon Way in Coffey Park that remarkably was left standing as the advancing fire was stopped at her front yard. | Lea Suzuki / The Chronicle

Those left behind

When emergency crews dug in and finally stopped the advance of the Tubbs Fire at her front yard on Randon Way in Coffey Park, 61-year-old Lisa Mast thanked her great fortune. What a blessing it was to be spared the flames, friends told her.

But there’s a cost to that blessing. Mast and her neighbors on the intact side of the fire line have learned that well in the past six months.

The smoke and ash coated the inside of their homes, and that has required cleanups that can cost $100,000 or more. Dust from the cleared lots across the street is continually blown into the air, and the tiny particulates and potential allergens can be irritating to sensitive respiratory systems. Until recently, cleanup equipment clanked and scraped from morning till night. That’s now slowly being replaced by the din of heavy construction machinery.

Lisa Mast, whose home in Coffey Park survived the North Bay Fires, talks about her experience after the fire and moving back into her standing home. Media: Lea Suzuki

Anyone who chooses to stay in the neighborhood, like Mast and her next-door neighbor Anna Brooner, is in for at least 10 more years of ear-banging tractor noise and billows of dust from construction crews.

“We have felt so forgotten, because all the attention has just been going to people who had total losses,” Mast said. “Those total losses are terrible, and you feel bad for everyone — you feel guilty about even asking to be considered alongside them.”

“We have felt so forgotten, because all the attention has just been going to people who had total losses,” Mast said. “Those total losses are terrible, and you feel bad for everyone — you feel guilty about even asking to be considered alongside them.”

“Friends say, ‘You must feel so good, now that burned houses are all cleared, isn’t that great?’” Jalliff said at the first meeting in February, which drew 26 people. Everyone laughed. Ruefully.

Mast is a cancer survivor and has to be extra-vigilant about her immune system. So until late March she was living in a rental unit in Windsor while her two-story house got scrubbed ceiling to floor. It was a huge job — and it still is, with some of that cleaning still going on in corners of the kitchen and her office room. It’s emotionally consuming and takes away time from her work selling medical insurance.

What happens in such a project is this: Industrial air cleaners chug most days in the rooms, month after month. The carpets have to be replaced. The venting systems have to be scoured of airborne toxins.

Just before she moved back in, the overwhelming nature of it all got to Mast as she talked to her sister on the phone, and she broke down crying.

“It’s amazing how long this all takes,” said Mast. “Sometimes it feels like it’s never ending.”

“This was such a great neighborhood to live in,” said Brooner, 58, whose family helped build Coffey Park in 1988 and has lived in it since then. “People walked their dogs, we visited each other, we watched each other’s kids grow up here.”

She stared across the street at the blackened fields that used to hold houses, friends and favorite walking routes. “So much of it is gone now,” she said. “It’s awful. I feel so bad for people who lost loved ones, friend, mementos. I want it all back.”

A sign greets motorists driving into Santa Rosa on Highway 101. “From The Ashes We Will Rise,” was placed after the fires. | Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle

Signs of life

Slowly, slowly, the county is moving forward. The landscape is unfamiliar, and the victories have been few, but there is hope.

In Coffey Park, residents carved jack-o-lanterns for Halloween and set twinkling fir trees and menorahs in burned-out lots for Christmas. This month has brought Easter egg hunts and the first unfurling of green leaves on burned trees.

In Santa Rosa’s City Hall, block captains from each of the decimated areas gather to compare notes on insurance paperwork, designs, progress.

In the Sonoma County Children’s Museum, special nights have been held for the children who fled their homes, some in the arms of their pajama-clad parents.

Where Supervisor Gorin’s destroyed home stood, daffodils and narcissus are rising.

Lizzie Johnson and Kevin Fagan are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. Email:, Twitter: @LizzieJohnsonnn, @KevinChron

Contractor who Set Out to Rebuild First Post-Fire House—Rebuilds First Post-Fire House

Mark Mitchell told us in November: I want to rebuild the first house. Now he’s doing just that for his friend Dan Bradford, in Coffey Park.

Back in November I wrote about Dan Bradford, a Coffey Park resident who lost his home to the Tubbs fire and who’d gotten caught up in some red tape over the cleanup of his property. Bradford had hired his friend Mark Mitchell—who, as he had done in Lake County, wanted to be the first contractor to swing the first hammer signaling the first house was being rebuilt after the October fires.

Well, wouldn’t you know it but I just read in the local daily newspaper that Bradford’s house is indeed the first one being rebuilt in Coffey Park. That’s great news.

Rebuilding after the fires: First home rises in Coffey Park



THE PRESS DEMOCRAT | February 22, 2018

The first home went up in Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park neighborhood, kids returned to school, debris removal was completed and a larger builder pulled out of the rebuilding effort. Here’s a recap of key events in Coffey Park in January and February.

The first home

The new year began with construction workers erecting a three-bedroom, two-bathroom house on Kerry Lane. It is the first home destroyed in the October wildfires to be rebuilt in Santa Rosa, where 3,000 residences were leveled during the firestorm.

Workers were able to reuse the home’s foundation, an exception in Coffey Park, where the vast majority of foundations were removed as part of the government-funded debris cleanup. The foundation’s concrete underwent strength testing and the results “were well above the minimum requirements,” said Dan Bradford, the property’s owner.

Bradford expects the home to be completed this spring. He expressed excitement at the progress and said he is “praying it gives hope to others that rebuilding in a timely manner is a distinct possibility.”

His builder, Lake County Contractors of Cobb, is among a number of construction companies large and small that are seeking work in Coffey Park. Many of those contractors have said they expect to begin work there this spring.

Back to school

Police, firefighters, National Guard personnel, community members and elected officials converged in early January to welcome nearly 400 students returning to the neighborhood’s Schaefer Elementary School.

Schaefer had been closed since October because of concerns over the effects of debris cleanup on campus air quality. As a result, students and teachers temporarily held classes at three other campuses in the Piner-Olivet school district.

Officials said air monitoring tests in December showed it was safe to reopen the school after winter break.

On the morning of their return, students found their playground filled with fire engines, police cars, motorcycles and at least one Army National Guard Hummer. First responders greeted the students and handed out hundreds of stuffed animals.

Parents and a school official spoke of the strong bonds made between teachers and children in the aftermath of the fires. They said the children are learning firsthand about compassion, caring and how people bounce back from adversity.

“You look for a silver lining, and that’s been our silver lining,” said John Way, a Schaefer parent and Piner-Olivet school board member.

Builder pulls out

DeNova Homes, a large Bay Area homebuilder, canceled plans in January to rebuild homes in Coffey Park.

The Concord company sent neighborhood residents a letter announcing its decision. DeNova cited concerns that its construction partners could not guarantee the “resources that are necessary to implement our cost-effective production model.”

It wasn’t revealed how many homeowners were affected by the company’s decision. DeNova recently stated that 75 homeowners had expressed “serious interest” in working with the builder, Coffey Strong chairman Jeff Okrepkie said.

The withdrawal fueled concern that other builders could have trouble getting enough construction workers to accommodate all the homeowners who want to rebuild this year.

“Our fear is that this is a bellwether of the way things are going to go,” Okrepkie said.

Debris removal complete

Before January ended, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced its contractors had completed the cleanup of debris from more than 1,200 houses in Coffey Park.

Labor Shortage May Slow Progress in Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park Rebuild

By Sam Brock

Published at 6:28 PM PST on Jan 29, 2018 | Updated at 8:26 PM PST on Jan 29, 2018

The first sign of a new home rising from the ashes in Santa Rosa’s fire-ravaged Coffey Park neighborhood came days after a major builder announced last week it is pulling the plug on plans for rebuilding dozens of homes.

The first shell of a new house appeared Monday on land in the middle of the burn zone, and in a few months, a family should be able to move back into it.

But a potential shortage of labour could spell a long wait for many others, as heavyweight builder Denova couldn’t secure enough subcontractors to move forward with 75 more homes.

“Absolutely, there’s some symbolism!” Jeff Okrepkie said. “It’s a beacon of light for the community to see. The rebuild has started.”

One observer on hand Monday, 78-year-old Stan Commerford, said he suffered a “double-whammy” in 2017.

“I was married for 56 years, and my wife died April 30,” he said. “And then my house burned down five months later.”

All Commerford wanted was a sign of a resurgent rebuild. But the lifelong Santa Rosa resident was reading the tea leaves, and they didn’t look good.

“My house burned to the ground; I want to rebuild,” he said. “I don’t think they’re going to have the labour to do it!”

Subcontractors serve as a lifeblood of sorts for home development. And after Denova said it couldn’t find enough subcontractors to help with 75 homes, some folks got spooked.

“The subcontractors, and especially the framers among those subcontractors and general contractors, are trying to find labor to ramp up to do that,” Okrepkie said. “And cost of living without access to local labor is just compounding the problem.”

Ed Waller, CEO of Shook & Waller, used to run arguably the largest home framing company in town. Now, his company builds custom homes. He was asked if the labor concerns are legitimate.

“Well, there really wasn’t that amount of work here,” he said. “It was a pretty normal market, so we all have framers, but we didn’t expect this to come. It would be a legitimate concern if the expectations were to rebuild maybe 4,000 homes in two years. Then, I think, legitimately we would have a labor shortage.”

Insurance companies are required to cover homeowners for living expenses and cost of replacement for only two years, though a bill has been introduced in Sacramento to change that.

Reconstruction underway on Coffey Park home after North Bay fires

By Wayne Freedman

Thursday, January 25, 2018

SANTA ROSA, Calif. (KGO) —

In Santa Rosa, there’s a very big deal about a little house. If you’ve been to Coffey Park since the devastating wildfire, you know there isn’t much there.

And if you’ve visited recently, you also know the exception.

Three months and counting after the firestorm, and Coffey Park is mostly a flat, scraped, mud-scape with one exception — 1613 Kerry Lane.

The little yellow house will have three bedrooms, two baths, and 1235 square feet when finished. Until then, it’s rising like a phoenix from the sodden soot.

“I’ll show you around the laundry area,” said Dan Bradford, the past, present and future owner. His reconstruction project has become a beacon of hope around here.

“What’s the secret?” we asked.

“Be assertive. Maybe aggressive if you need to be. And have the realization that you can do it one step at a time and get it done,” Dan said.

Dan is a hospital respiratory therapist who has navigated the rebuilding red tape with guile and fortune. For starters, he had enough insurance. And, he found the original plans for his house in a local draftsman’s shop. “I was lucky. I am lucky,” he said.

Dan hired a contractor out of Lake County, one with more-than-a-little experience at rebuilding burned homes the in the past two years.

The move appears to have paid off. Early in the process, Rob Williams of Lake County contractors advised Dan to dismiss FEMA’s clean-up offer, hoping to save the foundation from heavy excavators.

It worked. “If he had gone with FEMA, they would have torn it out,” said Williams. “He would have been like these other lots. Waiting.”

Instead, construction began with the new year. By May, the house will be finished. “Ever get the feeling you’re building a symbol?” we asked Williams.


He found Rob Williams, a contractor from Lake County with just a little experience at restoring burned homes. They began by saving the foundation.

“Yes, by the amount of traffic coming by every day.”

His company now has a waiting list and his employees, plenty of work ahead.

“Any advice for your neighbors?” we asked Dan.

“Yes. They should take the time to look around at their options,” he said.

So says the owner of that little yellow house, pushing up.

First home being rebuilt in Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park neighborhood after firestorm

By Justine WaldmanPublished: January 12, 2018, 8:57 pm

SANTA ROSA (KRON) — The North Bay wildfires destroyed 4,658 homes in October, and now, three months after the devastation, there is a sign of hope for the future of Santa Rosa.

One home is rising from the ashes, one nail and wood beam at a time.

The clang of construction thuds loudly in one corner of Coffey Park–on 1613 Kerry Ln.

A phoenix is rising from the ashes of the Tubbs fire

“Driving out, I knew it was bad with the propane tanks exploding,” homeowner Dan Bradford said.

Dan Bradford escaped the inferno with just his two dogs.

Determined to rebuild, he started construction of his new home on his old lot this week.

The wooden beams of the roof are now up.

With each swing of the hammer and pop of a nail gun, this neighborhood comes back to life.

The home is surrounded by hundreds of vacant lots.

It seems Dan won’t have neighbors for a while.

“Somebody said, ‘Yeah, you are going to have a difficult time borrowing a cup of sugar haha’,” Bradford said.

Dan admits he lucked out that the foundation was solid enough to rebuild his three-bedroom, two-bath house and found Lake County contractors were capable of taking on the challenge.

“I know there are people who are underinsured, and I feel really bad for them that they will go through a lot more than I have had to go through,” Bradford said.

Crews will keep pounding away. The home should be done in the spring.

“I hope it gives other people hope that they can rebuild that it won’t take three-to-four years that it can happen quickly,” Bradford said.

This is maybe the first home under construction here, but it won’t be the last.

First home rebuild begins in Santa Rosa’s burned Coffey Park neighborhood



THE PRESS DEMOCRAT | January 2, 2018, 5:53PM

Even as excavators loaded debris into trucks on nearby streets, two construction workers Tuesday stood atop the first new floor joists to rise above the burned ground of Coffey Park.

The home reconstruction project, the first such rebuild in Santa Rosa, sits in the 1600 block of Kerry Lane — in the middle of a neighborhood where the Tubbs fire destroyed 1,347 homes in October. Hundreds of the ruined houses since have been cleared away, leaving behind nearly whole blocks of ashen gray dirt and blackened tree trunks.

The rebuild of the three-bedroom, two-bath house on Kerry Lane began Saturday after the lot had been cleaned of debris, said Robert Williams, a partner in Lake County Contractors, a Cobb construction company. He wants his crew to frame walls for the single-story house by the end of the week.

“Hopefully this is the start of many more here,” said Williams, whose company rebuilt about 30 houses in Lake County after the 2015 Valley fire consumed nearly 1,300 homes there. On Tuesday morning, he stayed busy overseeing at least eight construction workers on the homesite.

Excavator operators and dump truck drivers far outnumber carpenters these days in Coffey Park, where debris cleanup remains the primary activity. But community leaders Tuesday lauded the news that the first home rebuilding project had begun in the city.

“It’s a ray of hope for everybody in the new year,” said Jeff Okrepkie, chairman of the Coffey Strong neighborhood rebuilding group. The work, he said, gives credence to the hope that neighbors can start to move back into their homes by year’s end.

Coffey Park, a compact collection of tract housing subdivisions, suffered the most concentrated destruction from the October wildfires that claimed 24 lives and leveled 5,130 homes in Sonoma County.

Kerry Lane sits surrounded by what the fires wrought. When Williams’ company completes the first house there in about four months, the closest neighbor will live more than three football fields away in any direction.

As a portable generator hummed nearby, Williams explained that his company managed to start work so quickly in part because it was able to reuse the original foundation. His workers put a coat of epoxy over the concrete to further enhance its durability, he said.

In contrast, he said, the company is planning to replace the foundation for a two-story home project on a nearby cul-de-sac off Hopper Lane.

The vast majority of burned foundations were removed in Coffey Park as part of government-sponsored debris removal there. But property owners can use any remaining foundations if the concrete is tested by a registered civil or structural engineer, said Clare Hartman, Santa Rosa’s deputy director of planning.

The Kerry Lane property is the first rebuild project in a Santa Rosa fire zone to receive a building permit, Hartman said.

But property owners already have requested permits to rebuild 11 other homes, including four more in Coffey Park and seven in the Fountaingrove area, where 1,519 homes were destroyed.

Meanwhile, county officials by Tuesday afternoon had issued 17 building permits for both damaged and destroyed homes and other structures, said Tennis Wick, the county’ planning director.

The Kerry property owner, Dan Bradford, explained by email Tuesday that Mark Mitchell, another partner in the contracting company, had encouraged him to have his foundation tested and “all the strength tests were well above the minimum requirements.”

Weighing Options
Opting out of the FEMA-led debris-removal program is not so easy

NOT SO FAST Dan Bradford is ready to rebuild, but says red tape is slowing him down.

It’s a busy Thursday morning in Coffey Park as the debris cleanup is in full effect.

Workers in white protective suits are clearing out home sites throughout the wasteland where some 1,300 homes were destroyed in the October Tubbs fire. The sound of beeping trucks backing up fills the air, as heavy front-loaders are making piles of trashed cars and all sorts of rugged equipment is rolling around the streets.

Numerous sites have been cleared in the mass cleanup underway. They await new foundations and the first swing of a hammer into a two-by-four to signal that the rebuilding is afoot. Throughout Coffey Park, sites have gotten the federal Environmental Protection Agency seal-of-approval, signified by a laminated certification of safety on the front lawn.

Coffey Park is coming back—except in front of the former home at 1613 Kerry Lane, where homeowner Dan Bradford has been waiting for city approval of a private cleanup and rebuilding plan submitted days after the fire by his Lake County–based contractor-friend Mark Mitchell.

Bradford is one of more than 300 residents split between the city and county who have so far “opted out” of the cleanup that’s being undertaken by contractors working under a federal-state umbrella that includes the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the state Office of Emergency Services, and overseen locally by city and county officials. But Bradford had good insurance and an experienced contractor ready to go just days after the fire, and didn’t want to go through the time-consuming rigamarole of the opt-in plan. Bradford thought the opt-out would expedite his rebuilding process; instead, it slowed it down.

Homeowners who lost their property to the fire, approximately 5,100 in the county, have until Nov. 22 to either opt-in or opt-out with the mass cleanup already well underway. Bradford didn’t sign up and doesn’t plan to. He just wants the city to approve his contractor’s debris-removal plan and his rebuilding plan, and as of last Friday, he did get some good news from the city: they’d approved his debris removal plan. Now comes his rebuilding plan, which has not yet been approved.

It remains to be seen what will happen if the remaining noncompliant residents blow past the Nov. 22 date and the hold-outs don’t opt-in to the program. Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore says nobody will be forced into any abatement program on Nov. 23 or forced to sign up with the sanctioned cleanup plan if they don’t want to, despite the Nov. 22 deadline.

The hope is that the debris cleanup will be completed by the end of the year. But as of Nov. 22, more than homeowners out of the 5,100 burned out in the city and county still had not signed up at all. Hundreds had opted out, including Bradford, only to wait for city and county bureaucracies to catch up with their own debris-cleanup plans and set up a process for them. The city started reviewing and approving (or rejecting) opt-out plans on Nov. 13, according to emails from Santa Rosa City Manager Sean McGlynn. The debris removal was well underway by the time Bradford got his approval on Nov. 18.

According to the numbers provided by the joint county-city information center, as of the morning of Nov. 22, 188 county property owners had opted out; 139 city property owners had gone that route, including Bradford. There were 229 parcels on city land, and 381 on county land, that did not have the necessary “right to enter” paperwork filed, or hadn’t signed on to the debris removal plan.

Nobody, says Gore, will be able to rebuild anything in Coffey Park until all the sites have that EPA sign in the front yard. That’s to make sure contractors aren’t laboring in toxic work sites. The EPA sign-off is a requirement for everyone, Bradford included, whether they opted in or opted out of the debris cleanup.

Bradford, who is 60, was burned out of his home on the morning of Oct. 8 and escaped with his two dogs. He’s a respiratory therapist at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital who lost his wife, Vicki, two years ago. Bradford has been living in a Rincon Valley rental and has taken a two-month leave from work to sort out the details of his rebuilding. He considers himself among the lucky.

“You really have to stay on top of the phone calls—you can’t miss a call,” Bradford says of the process. He returned to work for a couple of days after the fires but realized he couldn’t put his patients first if he was always waiting for that critical call from the insurance company. Bradford is not the suing type and says with a smile that the fires were an act of God. He’s not jumping on to any PG&E legal action around the fire and what might have caused it. He just wants to get back into his house, with his dogs, as quickly as possible—and wonders what the hang-up is and why the city gave citizens the chance to opt-out without having a process in place to deal with people like him who went that route.

“It takes a toll,” says Bradford of the emotional stress of being displaced and caught in the bureaucratic shuffle. “I’ve been trying to maintain some type of normalcy, but it’s hard for people who are displaced. That’s all the more reason to rebuild quickly.” A newcomer to Coffey Park, Bradford says his heart goes out to longtime residents who were burned out.

To add insult to the injury of losing his home, someone stole the undamaged metal mailbox from Bradford’s front yard. He laughs and shrugs about it as Mitchell pulls up in his truck. Mitchell, who owns Lake County Contractors, has been through this before—he’s still going through it in Lake County. He rebuilt 31 houses destroyed in the 2015 Lake County fires, including, he says, the first one that went up after the firestorm.

He’s eager to be the first guy swinging a hammer in Sonoma County, too, as he and Bradford take in all the surrounding activity and wonder why they can’t be a part of the action. A who’s who of big-dollar contractors from around the region—those Ghilotti Brothers trucks are hard to miss—are hard at work on the cleanup, while Bradford’s left to contemplate his patch of black grass with his hands in his pockets.

The recent rain has brought with it the jarring vision of small square patches of very bright green grass popping up amid the charred ruins. That’s a hopeful sign, but a bigger one will come once construction starts.

“People have to have hope,” Mitchell says as he recounts the scene in Lake County when his crew started building their first house. People were driving by and applauding, thanking the workers, dropping off 12-packs of beer. “There’s nothing like it,” he says.

Bradford says if it weren’t for Mitchell’s quick call to him after the fire, he might have made other immediate plans, such as leaving the region entirely. There’s concern over a potential “brain drain” in Sonoma County as a result of the fires, and Mitchell highlights that the more frustrated people get with bureaucracy, the more likely they are to take their insurance settlement and buy or build somewhere else.

Bradford toyed with the idea himself but was taken by Mitchell’s plan for a quick rebuild.

“First, when it came to my big decision to rebuild or not, I was able to get a hold of Mark,” says Bradford, “and he was really positive and enthusiastic about a quick rebuild and I said, that’s the way to go. If not for Mark and the speed of his rebuilding [plan], I probably would have done something different.”

The problem, as Bradford and Mitchell describe it, is that even as the city and county were setting a deadline for people to opt-in to the mass cleanup, the process for those who chose to opt-out was not fully in place, if at all, until recently.

“I’ve got trusses coming in 30 days,” says Mitchell, but no building permits to go with them. If not for the opt-out bureaucratic hold-up, Mitchell says he’d have cleared the debris and been well-prepared for rapid rebuilding of the Bradford home.

Gore says he understands the urgency of Bradford’s situation, and that Mitchell is not alone in wanting to be the first man to rebuild. He cites a constituent who has an “insatiable desire to rebuild, and I want to help him.” In the endgame of a rebuilt Sonoma County, Gore says enthusiastically that he’d like to see not just 5,100 houses rebuilt, but a fresh batch of 20,000 on top of those in the county.

But it starts with just one, and Mitchell hoped it would be the Bradford house. Gore says Bradford has a legitimate point in highlighting the price of opting out of the FEMA cleanup. The last thing the county or city needs now is bad faith around bureaucracy, “which can never, ever get in the way of rebuilding,” he says.

“We cannot make the private option seem to be infeasible in order to force them into it,” says Gore. “That is not what the process is for, and it’s not what we are doing.”

The bureaucratic lag at Bradford’s property highlights that there’s a massive recovery process afoot with huge numbers to account for—$7.2 billion in damage, up to 9,000 jobs evaporated in the region, 43 deaths—while also being, says Gore, a human story with individual victims such as Bradford deserving of one-on-one attention from their local government. There’s already been one fire-related suicide at the site of a burned-out home.

Lake County Supervisor Rob Brown has offered some advice to Gore as the county struggles out from under the ash. Brown has had numerous interactions with Mitchell and says that he’s trying to do the right thing and that he’s passionate about being that first guy on the scene of a disaster with the hammer.

Brown also notes the value of remaining patient in the face of a process that can be frustrating. Before any new homes are built in the North Bay, Brown says he has stressed to Gore the importance of prioritizing the completion of pre-existing infrastructure projects (the emphasis in Sonoma County will be on fixing the roads, says Gore) and making sure municipalities have hired building officials for when the rebuilding plans start to come hard and fast.

Two years after the fires, Lake County is still hiring staff, Brown says. Of an approximate 1,300 houses destroyed, Brown says around 350 have been rebuilt and 500 have been permitted over two years.

“Two years” is the most-bandied-about timeline for when people blown out by the North Bay fires will return to rebuilt homes. Mitchell’s goal was to shorten that timeline for Bradford, but the city only started approving the opt-out plans as of Nov. 13. He’s already behind schedule for his opt-out client, even as the opt-in house across the street from Bradford’s has been cleared of debris and awaits a new foundation, and a new lease on life.

Families Rebuild After Disastrous Valley Fire



Four months after the Valley Fire ripped through the communities of Cobb and Middletown, the first couple whose home was in the process of being rebuilt is getting ready to move back in.

In many ways the story of Ron Haskett and Katherine Spencer-Ahart is the story of Middletown and Cobb. Its one of love, hardship and new beginnings.

“We knew our place was gone, but it’s still real hard to see in real life,” said Haskett.

Their home was one of the 1,800 structures brought down by the indiscriminate Valley Fire.

While many of their neighbors left their houses, Haskett and Spencer-Ahart immediately went to work on a new one. Their’s will be the first destroyed house rebuilt. They’re already turning it into a home.”

“This is the living room, this is going to be a wood stove over in this corner. Open into the kitchen,” said Spencer-Ahart.

“The recovery has actually been pretty amazing,” said Lake County Supervisor Rob Brown.

Brown says phase one of fire recovery is complete. Areas with high erosion risk have been addressed, down trees and home debris which covered much of Middletown has been cleared.

“In some areas, just a block away from this devastation here, you drive through town and you wouldn’t even know there was a fire here,” said Brown.

All over the affected areas is a feeling of redemption. Signs of hope cover what was once peoples lives turned into piles of rubble.

As this town arises from the fire, a spirit of new beginnings has caught on, these two ran with it.

“We got engaged in front of that window on Christmas Eve,” said Haskett.
“It was amazing. It was unexpected and um, totally unexpected … It meant a lot,” said Spencer-Ahart.

Their new beginning, Haskett hopes, inspires others who may have lost a house to realize they haven’t lost their home.

“It’s a lot of hope. Can’t wait to get home,” said Haskett.