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San Bruno blast neighborhood's message to Wine Country: It's a long recovery

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After a seemingly endless procession of bulldozers and carpentry crews grinding through the streets day after month after year, reconstruction of the San Bruno neighborhood that vanished in flames when a Pacific Gas and Electric Co. pipeline exploded more than seven years ago is almost done.

The key word is “almost.” For those just starting to rebuild after the worst wildfire disaster in California’s history — the blazes that rampaged through the Wine Country in October — San Bruno’s example is sobering.

Consider: There’s still one house to be built in San Bruno’s Crestmoor neighborhood. A community park on the spot where members of two families perished is yet to be completed. Street signs are still missing, and roads have yet to be repaved.

In Wine Country? They’re still scooping ashes out of devastated lots.

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Judge set to sentence PG&E in criminal case tied to blast

A massive fire roars through a neighborhood in San Bruno.

The difference in scale is, of course, huge. The San Bruno blast of Sept. 9, 2010, killed eight people, destroyed 38 homes and left 17 more houses badly damaged. The October blazes killed 45 people in Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and Yuba counties and incinerated 8,889 homes, commercial structures and outbuildings.

But the challenges for the people involved, and for replacing destroyed property, are similar. Those who have been slogging along in San Bruno predict a 10-year ordeal before life in the Wine Country burn region starts to feel normal again.

“All I can say to anyone up north is get ready, because it’s going to be a long, long haul,” said Jim Ruane, San Bruno’s mayor when the shoddily tended PG&E pipeline exploded in the most destructive natural-gas blast in U.S. history. “They seem to be doing a good job of cleaning up and getting right on it up there, but here we are in San Bruno about 7 1/2 years later — and we’re still finishing.

“There’s no handbook on this,” said Ruane, who helped oversee the rebuilding plans and battles with PG&E for millions of dollars in compensation to the city and victims before retiring from his post in November. “You can’t go to the Page 52, Column 3 and say, ‘OK, this is what we do.’

“The best you can do is feel your way through it. It will be hard. But they should know in the North Bay that they will recover and be stronger for it.”

Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, spent years fighting PG&E over the blast alongside Ruane and other leaders. Her advice to those suffering in the North Bay is “to call on their elected leaders and every level of government, demand action, and don’t give up.”

That means pushing for public meetings — she held nearly a dozen town hall sessions on the blast — to strategize on everything from government aid and lawsuits to insurance payouts.

“Push insurance companies to do the right thing,” Speier said. “Embarrassing them when they don’t is good.”

At one point, Speier and several San Bruno survivors said, she had to pressure the IRS not to tax victims’ settlement money.

“Recovery in the North Bay? I think it’s a decadelong process,” Speier said. “So find a way to take this horrible experience and turn it into something positive, because that’s how you’ll get through this.”

In San Bruno’s case, city officials and residents counted carving money out of PG&E as one of those positives. The utility gave the city $50 million toward rebuilding the neighborhood and $68 million in restitution money that’s being routed through a foundation for community improvements such as a new public pool, and paid more than $500 million in claims settlements to families that suffered losses.

In the North Bay, investigators haven’t determined what caused the wind-whipped October conflagrations, but one possibility is that PG&E electrical lines were blown or knocked over. Many North Bay residents have sued the utility, Sonoma County’s Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to sue, and the company suspended dividends on its common stock in December out of concerns that it might be held liable for more than $9 billion in damages.

All but 12 of the 38 families burned out by the San Bruno explosion eventually came back to Crestmoor. The dozen that never returned included all the families who lost loved ones in the blast.

The first ones to move in, a year after the fire, were Bob and Nancy Hensel. Their advice to those who lost their homes in the Wine Country disaster: Strap in for a rough ride.

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Atlas Peak fire

The view from the Biava Lane while three fires overtook Napa County.

“It’s a lot of work building a house,” said Bob Hensel, who is 80 and had lived at his Fairmont Drive home since 1972. “Getting bids, going through the plans, getting approvals, it all takes time.

“And we were lucky — we’d just done work on the house a few years before, so all the plans were at my son’s house and we didn’t have to have them drawn up from scratch.”

Perhaps most aggravating, he said, was trying to remember all the belongings that turned into smoking debris. Insurance companies required a detailed inventory of every item lost before cutting checks for those items, “and it was an amazing headache,” Hensel said.

“Couches, chairs, even the handles on cabinets and a cheese grater — everything had to be listed, and for a long time afterward we were always going, ‘Oh shoot, we used to have one of those,’ and we’d forgotten to put it in the list,” Hensel said.

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In the end, he and his wife assembled two 8-inch-thick binders with 3,600 items to replace, right down to a $5.29 magnifying glass.

Most insurance companies have relaxed that inventory requirement for losses in last year’s wildfires, according to the state Insurance Department. Speier said the inventory mandate should have been eliminated altogether: “It’s just wrong. They went through hell once, and they don’t need to do it again.”

Across the street from the Hensels, Carolyn Gray, 75, often looks out the second-floor window of her reconstructed home at the bare spot where a memorial park will go in. She can see the slowly rising house down the block on Glenview Drive. And she still marvels that she managed to scramble fast enough with husband Charlie, now 86, on the day of the explosion to escape.

The ranch home where they’d raised a family and lived for 43 years disappeared in flames, along with the RV in their driveway, as they fled in their car with their dog. They rebuilt within three years, but it was only in the past year or so that the quiet, 1950s-vintage neighborhood has felt like something Gray recognizes as normal.(tncms-asset)26ea6ca8-0a90-11e8-bb01-00163ec2aa77[3](/tncms-asset)

The streets still don’t have signs, so Gray tends to get neighbors’ mail. She wishes the repaving was already done. And the clanking and dust of reconstruction drove her to distraction until it finally settled down.

But she and Charlie were able to reconstruct their house with a few things they’d never gotten around to before the blast — better drainage in the backyard, heated floors, a more spacious second floor. It took a lot of wrangling with their insurance company — “we negotiated with PG&E for another $200,000 to make up the shortfall for rebuilding,” she said — and the aggravation of permits and going over construction plans seemed never-ending. But they got what they wanted.

Her favorite spot now is the large room on the second floor that she made into her quilting center, with a wide desk and plenty of places for supplies. The sun streams in pretty much all day through the window there, and now when she gazes at the once-again peaceful neighborhood she can remember something other than horror.

“My advice for anyone who came through a fire: Build something into your house that makes you happy,” she said, lines easing on her forehead as she stared out the window. “My quilting room, this is it for me. This is my replacement for what we went through.”(tncms-asset)cb0f975d-9e7e-5ab3-80d0-02ba16233bc1[4](/tncms-asset)

For Rene Morales, whose 20-year-old daughter, Jessica Morales, died in the blast, healing has come several ways. One is through creating her Gas Pipe Safety First nonprofit organization, which advocates for stiffer pipeline regulation — “it helps channel my sorrow and anger,” she said.

Another is in helping create, with other survivors, the memorial park that is sprouting across the street from Gray’s house. Built on the former home lots of the Greig and Bullis families, which lost a total of five members to the flames, the grassy park will overlook a tree-studded canyon and feature a rock wall with seats dedicated to those who died.

Any mention of the fire will be low-key, like the only other memorial to the blast victims — a hard-to-find sculpture in the corner of the main city park — because that’s how the survivors wanted it.

“Anything bigger probably would have brought a more depressing feel to the area,” Morales said. “We all know the history of what happened, and we don’t need to be reminded of it in a big way all the time. The way this park is designed, it gives you a sense that you are up above and looking down. It’s a symbolic feeling of freedom.

“It feels right,” she said. “It’s pretty. And it’s been a long time in coming.”

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