Residents of the largely burned out Coffey Park neighborhood in Santa Rosa are being allowed back in today to assess damage, collect anything they can find, and grieve. The neighborhood has been under National Guard watch since the Tubbs Fire passed through and flattened much of it last Monday, and now evacuees, including those whose homes did not burn, are being given passes to return, at least for a time, between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. today, as ABC 7 reports.
The news came at a community meeting Thursday night that reportedly became heated as grieving, angry residents confronted Santa Rosa Fire Chief Tony Gossner asking why they had not been given any warning of the approaching wildfire. Per ABC 7, Gossner responded saying, "I wish we could have gotten everyone out, I wish we could have. That's something we're gonna have to live with, just like you."
The actions of Sonoma County officials on the night of October 8 are likely to continue to be scrutinized from all sides in the coming months, after a decision was made to avoid mass panic on the highways and not send an emergency alert out that would have reached multiple towns not immediately threatened by the fires. Senators Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris have subsequently called on the FCC to address the shortcomings of the federal Wireless Emergency Alert system that is currently in use.
Sonoma County evacuees are frustrated, also, by both the lack of information being shared by government officials about when they can return home, and the persistent roadblocks preventing them from freely moving around the area. CHP Napa Commander Chris Child explained to ABC 7 that many roads remain closed because "everything from guard rails to utility poles to trees that are smoldering and fall[ing] down" remain safety concerns.
In the Coffey Park neighborhood and elsewhere Fountaingrove residents are being told that they will get an update on when they will be allowed back soon the California Department of Emergency Management is reportedly taking the lead on the cleanup, and residents are being told not to handle any of the ash on the ground, because it's toxic. One official tells ABC 7 that the cleanup will take months, and "It's a marathon not a sprint."
That marathon, coupled with the enormous task of rebuilding upwards of 6,800 homes and businesses in Sonoma County, has many worried there will be a mass exodus of people who can't afford, or can't wait, to return to their same neighborhood. As the Sacramento Bee reports, the houses lost in Santa Rosa account for five percent of the city's housing stock, and some of that housing was being occupied by renters who will have to look elsewhere for homes now.
Another concern: The FEMA budget is already being stretched thin addressing hurricane disasters in Puerto Rico, Texas, and elsewhere. It will be a challenge to put together enough state and federal assistance for low- and middle-income people affected by the fires to keep them from fleeing the county in search of cheaper living elsewhere.