Ashes to Action: Rebuilding After the Tubbs Fire
It's been a year since the Tubbs fire devastated parts of Napa, Sonoma and beyond. For Rebuild North Bay, the work has only just begun.
When the Tubbs Fire — one of over a dozen Northern California blazes that burned for weeks in October 2017 — was finally fully contained on October 31, the damage was hard to quantify. In total, the Tubbs Fire burned more than 5,600 structures and nearly 37,000 acres of land. In Santa Rosa alone, over 2,800 homes were destroyed, and at least 22 lives were lost.
Those numbers reflect but one of the wildfires that together would cause $9.4 billion in damages and lead to the week of October 8, 2017, being declared “the deadliest week of wildfires in California history.” When it came time to discuss recovery efforts, the question of where to begin seemed almost existential. After all, where does one start when the world is covered in ash?
For Michael Mondavi, founder of Folio Fine Wine Partners, the answer came thanks to a telephone call from an old friend.
“I got involved right after the fires when Darius Anderson called,” Mondavi says. “He asked if I would be interested in working with him to make sure that Napa, Sonoma, Lake and Mendocino [counties] all continued to get the proper support for years to come. To me, it was a rhetorical question.”
Anderson, the CEO and founder of Kenwood Investments LLC, quickly succeeded in recruiting Mondavi — along with a host of other notables from across Northern California — to join the board of the newly created Rebuild North Bay Foundation. Its mission: to rebuild the North Bay to be better, safer, greener and more efficient, while sustaining momentum for the long-term focus such an effort would require.
Alongside Mondavi on Rebuild’s board of directors are wine pioneer Tuck Beckstoffer, Kaiser Permanente’s Judy Coffey, Hansel Auto Group president Henry Hansel and many more. They are pooling resources, taking meetings and offering guidance to a community that continues to navigate its way through an unprecedented crisis. At the helm is Rebuild North Bay’s executive director, Jennifer Gray Thompson, a lifelong Sonoma Valley resident.
Thompson compares the work of Rebuild North Bay to a fifth-floor walk-up apartment — with at least that many steps and levels required to ultimately reach the doorway that leads to a sustainable future.
“The needs change pretty constantly,” she notes. “Rebuild North Bay Foundation is dedicated to being here and being at its most active from one year post-fire to five to 10 years post-fire.”
In other words, the work is only just beginning.
EVERYONE INVOLVED in the North Bay fire recovery efforts seems eager to emphasize one point above all else: the bellwether of a year may be notable from a news cycle perspective, but disasters like the one that occurred last fall don’t operate on convenient timelines.
“This fire was not just a one-day fire,” Mondavi says. “This fire went on for over 10 days. We could have a oneyear anniversary for 10 days in a row. Our concern is that in six months or in a year or in two years, when it’s no longer in the news, people won’t be paying attention — and yet that’s when the true rebuilding begins.”
Part of Rebuild’s plan to ensure the North Bay’s recovery efforts aren’t forgotten is to stay in close contact with the federal government and advocates in the nation’s capital. As part of a delegation that visited Washington, D.C., this January, Mondavi met with leaders like Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Rep. Kevin McCarthy and Mick Mulvaney of the Office of Management and Budget.
“One of the many takeaway lessons that I got in Washington, D.C., is that everything in a state that goes through FEMA has to have the approval of the Office of the Governor,” Mondavi notes. “The big message I got was if Napa and Sonoma and Mendocino and Lake all went separately to the governor’s office, it would bog things down.”
Thus, one core aspect of Rebuild North Bay’s focus has been to assist with communication between counties and ensure that all efforts toward recovery pay the biggest possible dividends. On a large scale, this means asking county officials to each select one request and one proposal to send to the Office of the Governor to prevent the logjam a piecemeal approach might cause.
On a smaller level, it means helping those with something to offer connect with those in need.
AT THE EPICENTER of the Tubbs Fire devestation, Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park neighborhood was leveled last October. In total, over 1,300 structures were destroyed. Now the residents of Coffey Park face not only the challenges of rebuilding their own homes, but the further expense of removing and replacing the damaged wall lining their properties. Thompson estimates the cost at $25,000 per parcel owner — and at first, she wasn’t sure there was anything Rebuild could do to help.
“We’re not magical,” Thompsons says. “We have no capes, but if we have the access and ability to make a difference, that’s what we’re going to do.”
When the debris removal company AshBritt consulted Thompson about how it might help the recovery efforts, she mentioned the Coffey Park walls. With Rebuild serving as a fund manager, AshBritt agreed to donate $450,000. Thompson then secured the services of local attorney Martin Hirsch, who donated his fees to get the necessary paperwork filed. The project is underway and expected to take three months to complete.
Representatives for two other nearby subdivisions — Mark West and Lakefield — saw what Rebuild was doing and contacted Thompson to see if they too could get help with some common fencing issues the fires had left behind.
“I’m not a fence fairy,” Thompson recalls thinking, but it was then that Habitat for Humanity Sonoma County called her to see if she needed any additional resources for the Coffey Park project. “I said, ‘Why don’t we work together on helping these other two subdivisions? Let’s just see what’s possible.’ ”
Thompson met with community block captains and meanwhile received another well-timed call — this one from Barry Friedman of Friedman’s Home Improvement. He told Thompson he’d had vendors waiting since the fires had started for a chance to help. The material donations to aid Mark West and Lakefield with fencing fell into place. At press time, more funding was still required to keep the project on track as difficulties with the terrain were adding costs.
“Sonoma Clean Power gave a $200,000 grant for that project, and NorCal Ford and the Ford Foundation gave grants as well,” Thompson says. “It’s an example of the role the private sector can play in our recovery to fill gaps, and proof that they want to play that role. There’s a lot of generosity and talent out there, and it’s our job to pair the private sector with the public and nonprofit sectors to get all of this done.”
Thompson also sees the Coffey Park walls as a “visual deliverable” — a physical sign of progress that can be pointed to as a milestone on the march to recovery. “We desperately want one tangible community-based project completed or nearing completion by the anniversary.
“A fence is not that sexy, I know,” Thompson says, “but it means a lot to the person behind it.”
AMONG REBUILD NORTH BAY Foundation’s other projects: establishing a website that can serve as a one-stop information hub; continuing to lobby in Washington, D.C.; visiting cities like San Diego that have previously endured disasters of their own to learn what does and doesn’t work; and documenting Rebuild’s own efforts so that other cities and counties can use its work as a blueprint in future emergencies.
Of course, it’s also vital to remember that behind the statistics and acronyms are real-life human beings. Despite the incredible display of resiliency and strength the North Bay has shown, there are still many dealing with the mourning that comes with such profound loss.
“The trauma is still very much with us,” Thompson says. “Our vineyards are fine, and our tourism economy is doing just fine, but we have to keep our focus on what our neighbors need.”
Ultimately, there will be no quick fixes for the devastation wrought by last fall’s wildfires, but in lieu of a cheat sheet with all the answers for a successful recovery, Rebuild North Bay now looks to the communities themselves as its guiding force.
“I think the most amazing thing that happened during the fires is it really tested who we are as a community,” Thompson suggests. “It tested what we would do for each other, which turned out to be anything necessary. I think those lessons will stay with us, but we also need everybody to remember that their talents and generosity will still be needed in the years to come.
“It’s especially important for people who have lost their homes to not feel alone,” she adds. “We can’t just turn our eyes away and allow that to occur. We have to stay with our community all the way through, which means donating our time, donating our funds and donating our services. If you don’t live here, then please remember that economically we still need you, and we welcome you here.”