SANTA ROSA — They evacuated Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park neighborhood again last month, and it felt like October 2017 all over.
“The sheer smell of smoke is what was the scariest part,” said Steve Rahmn, who lost his home in the Tubbs Fire two years ago and had to leave when the Kincade Fire threatened in late October. “It brought up so many memories.”
Yet Rahmn and his family didn’t hesitate to return to their rental after the Kincade Fire subsided — and are excited to move back to their old place when reconstruction is finished in January. “It’s such a tight community,” he said.
Coffey Park is rebuilding quickly: The community organization Coffey Strong says more than half of the 1,200 homes that burned down in 2017 are finished, and hundreds more are under construction.
But some wildfire experts wonder if Coffey Park isn’t courting danger by ignoring a state building code designed for wildfire-prone areas.
“They’re setting themselves up for the next disaster,” said Chris Dicus, a wildfire expert at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. “I was disappointed to see they didn’t build up to code.”
The code, known as Chapter 7A, requires builders to use fire-resilient materials on roofs, siding and windows on new construction built in 2008 or later. The code is credited by state officials and other experts with saving hundreds of homes when the Camp Fire destroyed most of Paradise a year ago Friday.
But it’s only mandatory in the largely rural areas where Cal Fire has identified the potential for big wildfires.
In most urban areas, it’s optional: Cities and counties can adopt Chapter 7A, or let contractors build to more relaxed standards. Despite the devastation of Coffey Park in the 2017 fire, Santa Rosa chose to disregard the code.
‘Coffey Park Strong’Before there was Paradise, there was Coffey Park.
The cluster of fires that ravaged Northern California wine country in October 2017 did their worst damage in this neighborhood in the northwest corner of Santa Rosa.
Overnight, the middle-class enclave was transformed into a symbol of the ferocious breed of wildfire, fed by dry vegetation and gusting winds, that have become all-too-commonplace in California the past few years.
“The planet literally aligned to have these explosive conditions,” Ken Pimlott, who was Cal Fire’s director, said as the fires were still raging in Santa Rosa.
Coffey Park also became emblematic of serious breakdowns in the emergency-alert system. Many in the neighborhood and other parts of Sonoma County said they didn’t get warnings about the Tubbs Fire until it was too late — a complaint that was largely absent last month, thanks to an overhaul of the county’s wireless alert program.
Five people died in Coffey Park in the Tubbs Fire; block after block of the tightly-compacted community was reduced to ashes. Of the 5,000 homes destroyed by the Tubbs Fire, nearly a quarter of them were in Coffey Park.
Last week, Coffey Park was a bustling construction zone, alive with backhoes and tractors and the beep-beep of trucks going in reverse.
The rubble from the Tubbs Fire was long gone, and only a few scorched trees were still standing.
In front of Rally Garcia’s and Sherry Fish’s rebuilt home on Dogwood Drive, where they live with their three children, a small sign was propped up by the front door. It featured a pair of hands cupping a seedling, above the slogan that’s found practically everywhere: “Coffey Park Strong.”
The family moved back in August — only to be forced to evacuate again in October because of the Kincade Fire.
But none of that has changed their minds about living in Coffey Park. In fact, Sherry Fish said the second evacuation somehow strengthened their attachment to the neighborhood.
The rebuilt house “didn’t feel like home yet,” she said. “And then, after being evacuated again and then coming back, I was just like, ‘This is home. This is where we are. This is where our neighbors are. This is it.’ “
Coffey Park residents seem resigned to the risk of another fire. They consider it part of the cost of living in a neighborhood they love. When asked about building codes, they say yes, another monster like the Tubbs Fire would be devastating — but no amount of fire-resistant roofing would likely change that.
“If it’s going to burn down, it’s going to burn down,” said Charlie Catlett, a retired physician who moved back home a little more than a week ago, after the latest evacuations were over.
That doesn’t mean Catlett isn’t taking precautions.
His new home, which he shares with documentary filmmaker Susan Stern, is outfitted with a heat detector, indoor sprinkles and other safety features.
Still, he regards the Tubbs Fire as something of a fluke: “It was just kind of a perfect storm that hit,” he said.
After the Tubbs FireSanta Rosa city officials are no strangers to the strict Chapter 7A building standards. The rules are enforced in several areas on the east side of Santa Rosa, a few miles from Coffey Park. They include the Fountaingrove neighborhood, which was badly burned in 2017.
After the Tubbs Fire, the city considered extending the code to include Coffey Park.
“We did have lengthy discussions with (City) Council after the fires,” said Scott Moon, Santa Rosa’s fire marshal.
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But a city spokeswoman, Adriane Mertens, said earlier this year that officials considered the devastation of Coffey Park an event unlikely to be repeated — the result of extraordinary winds that blew embers across Highway 101’s six lanes into the compact neighborhood. The city has encouraged builders to use stronger materials but hasn’t made it a requirement.
“Coffey Park did not meet the criteria that would require them to build to those Chapter 7A standards,” Moon said.
He said officials were wary, in part, of making the reconstruction of Coffey Park too expensive.
“It comes down to the cost of the project,” Moon said. Fire-resilient materials “can be more expensive and the numbers we’ve heard is 25 or 30 percent more for the building materials.”
Some economists dispute that, saying the cost difference is minor. And Dicus said city officials should insist on the stricter building code even if it’s unpopular.
After the Tubbs Fire, “it’s almost time to put on the black hat so in the future there won’t be the level of death and destruction,” the Cal Poly scientist said.
the Camp FireIf anything good came out of the Camp Fire, it was this: Experts say it showed the wisdom of California’s building standards for wildfire areas.
A McClatchy investigation in April revealed that half of the 350 single-family homes built to the strict code survived the Camp Fire without damage. Only 18 percent of the other 12,100 homes in the burn zone, all built before 2008, escaped damage, leaving much of the Butte County foothill town in ruins.
Although Gov. Gavin Newsom and legislative analysts cited McClatchy’s findings, lawmakers this year scrapped a proposal by Assemblyman Jim Wood, D-Santa Rosa — who’d helped identify victims of the Tubbs and Camp fires using dental records — to establish a $1 billion revolving-loan fund to help residents of dangerous areas retrofit their homes against fire hazards. The Legislature passed a version of Wood’s plan directing the state to seek funding for retrofits from the federal government.
A series of maps produced by Cal Fire help determine which parts of the state enforce the code. Incorporating terrain, weather and other factors, the maps identify the state’s “fire hazard severity zones,” predicting the probability of a major disaster.
Rural areas patrolled by Cal Fire have no choice but to adopt the building code if they’re tagged as dangerous on the agency’s maps.
For urban areas that have primary responsibility for their fire protection, the Cal Fire maps are merely recommendations. Cities and counties can hold builders to the strict rules, or not.
As it happens, most cities and counties choose to impose the Chapter 7A code.
A few municipalities have even expanded the areas that must adhere to the code, going beyond Cal Fire’s maps.
Santa Rosa is one of those places; the footprint of the building code is larger than what Cal Fire recommended, Moon said.
Coffey Park, unlike some other parts of Santa Rosa, has never been red-flagged by Cal Fire as a hazard area. City officials based their decision not to implement the code to Coffey Park on Cal Fire’s mapping.
It’s possible, though, that Coffey Park’s status could change.
For the first time in more than a decade, Cal Fire is updating its maps based on better “fire climatology” and other factors, said Dave Sapsis, a fire scientist with the agency.
He said it’s almost a certainty that more areas of California will be designated as hazard zones when the new maps come out.
Will that include Coffey Park? He declined to make a prediction. But he added that another big fire in the Santa Rosa neighborhood isn’t out of the question.
“The fact that something occurred in the historical record is very good evidence that it could occur again,” Sapsis said.
The arrival of the new maps will translate into broader enforcement of stricter building codes. Under a law signed last year by former Gov. Jerry Brown, any urban area labeled “very high fire hazard” by Cal Fire will have no choice but to require the use of “fire resilient building materials” on new construction.
However, the requirement won’t take effect until Cal Fire finishes remapping the hazard zones — which is probably another year or two away. By that point, Coffey Park probably will have finished rebuilding.
That’s probably fine as far as many Coffey Park residents are concerned. They say Tubbs proved there’s no such thing as fireproof.
“I don’t think anybody could have built a house that could have survived that fire,” said Rahmn, recalling the sight of the aluminum rims on his car melting in the heat.
As for the future, he said what truly matters is being prepared for a disaster and being able to get out of harm’s way.
“We all lost everything,” he said. “But my family and me being safe is most important.”