New hurdles emerge five months after North Bay wildfires

Thursday marked five months since the start of the North Bay firestorm, which killed dozens of people and leveled entire neighborhoods. 

The wind-driven house fires broke out on the evening of Oct. 8 and burned into the early-morning hours of the next day.

Wildland areas continued to burn for weeks afterward.

The group of fires are among the most destructive in U.S. history.

"My sense of it, is that it's hard and frustrating," said Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey, looking at the recovery so far.

Coursey says the process is complicated, and even with 90 percent of the debris removed, new hurdles emerge. 

"I keep saying, I'm getting my masters in disasters," he said wryly. 

Thursday, Coursey took a walk in Coffey Park, where home sites are in various states, some abandoned, others showing signs of rebuilding. 

Three thousand homes burned inside city limits, and another few thousand outside. 
Coursey says many houses were under-insured, and anyone struggling financially before the fire is likely struggling even more now. 

"There are 3000 stories and 3000 individual situations out there," he noted. "And we have 3000 people who became developers and builders without any desire or plan to do it, so that's a learning curve for them too."

Asked if the recovery, so far, is where he wants it to be? 

"I would say 'no' because I know there are a lot of people who aren't where they want to be at five months." 

In Coffey Park, framing is up on a four-bedroom house, surrounded by empty lots.   

"We started from day one, just started calling, asking questions," said Frank Machado, explaining how he and his wife Dolly were able to get started quickly.

The Machados are among 18 households now under construction in Santa Rosa.

Twenty two more have permits and hundreds are in the pipeline.   

"To me it doesn't feel like five months," said Dolly, "it's still vivid, very much so." 

The couple raised two boys in their home, then escaped approaching flames with only a few clothes and their cats. 

Theirs was one of the first home sites cleared in the neighborhood.

For them, pushing forward was essential. 

"Because all of this is so emotional," said Dolly, "and you have so much to do."

Most of their neighbors are coming back. But alongside contractor signs, there are sale signs too. 

"Some people are ready to start building, but some aren't sure and some are waiting," said Frank. "They want to get through things first. It's a tough one."

Down the street K-Mart, which burned, is being demolished with no plan to rebuild or relocate announced. 
In contrast, Kohl's Department store, wrecked inside by smoke, will reopen later this month, and has signs outside reading "we're hiring."
Merchants across Santa Rosa still display signs of support, including the slogan "Sonoma Strong."
"These customers are our regular customers, people we know every day, who suddenly don't have their home," said Trevor Frampton, owner of Western Farm Center, where a large sign proclaims that love is thicker than smoke. 
 

Frampton says he will never forget how people streamed the morning of October 9, seeking pet food, and saying their homes were gone.    

"It was one customer, then the next, and the next customer same thing, and almost everybody who came in that morning." 

Coursey says it is still an emotional time for survivors.
"I have people thanking me one minute and yelling at me the next minute, and I understand that," he said. 
He hopes community spirit remains strong even as time passes. 

"It's more than a slogan, we have to live it and be strong together," said Coursey. "If you cared about what happened to your neighbors in October, you still should be caring about right now." 
  

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