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Fire aftermath: California Sonoma County ramps up effort to prevent next big disaster

SANTA ROSA, Calif. -- If Sonoma County has a prayer of preventing the next firestorm, it's already grievously behind. And unless it gets cracking fast, ruin could be right around the corner.

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Kevin Fagan
, San Francisco Chronicle

SANTA ROSA, Calif. -- If Sonoma County has a prayer of preventing the next firestorm, it's already grievously behind. And unless it gets cracking fast, ruin could be right around the corner.

That was the conclusion of the county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday as its members pored over an advisory committee's suggestions for cleaning up from October's devastating blazes and getting ready for future related disasters, which could erupt as anything from landslides and water contamination to more firestorms.

The first thing the supervisors did after hearing the reports was direct the newly created county Office of Recovery and Resiliency to come up with a comprehensive five-year plan by the end of spring for trying to make sure the heavily forested county doesn't light up again.

The second, third and fourth things they did were whip urgency into everyone in the room, which included dozens of staffers from county departments and environmental and fire-prevention nonprofit agencies.

``I want to light a fire in this effort, pun intended,'' said Board Chairman James Gore. ``We are sitting with a basic tinderbox in our hills. I am far more concerned with what's in front of us than what's behind.''

None of this was meant to denigrate the hard recovery work that's already happened, Gore and the other supervisors said.

Work crews in Sonoma County expect to finish clearing the charred debris of buildings by the end of March, and they've already finished in the worst-hit neighborhood, Coffey Park. Fire wreckage that was partially clogging the waterways around 45 bridges has been removed. Hundreds of new houses are in preliminary plans for Santa Rosa, home to 3,500 of the 5,000-plus structures that the fires destroyed, and the county has proclaimed it wants to build 8,000 additional homes in the next few years.

But that's all just a good start, the supervisors said. So, they added, were the reports on shoring up vulnerable ecosystems. The reports were assembled for Tuesday's meeting by the Watershed Collaborative, an advisory committee formed after the October firestorms of experts from organizations including the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, Greenbelt Alliance and water-oversight and other agencies in Sonoma County and Santa Rosa.

The collaborative's suggestions, all aimed at fire prevention, included more vegetation management, like thinning out trees and installing native plants to shore up hills, to prevent landslides and easily spreading fires. The group also urged dozens of agencies now talking regularly about fire recovery to keep coordinating after the emergency has subsided.

The collaborative additionally urged the county to install monitors in streams and soil to give early warnings for danger of flooding and mudslides. The collaborative and county planners envision at least 10 special gauges in the area to do the monitoring, with alerts going out to residents, local agencies and the National Weather Service.

``You have done excellent work,'' Gore told the group. ``Four or five years ago there wasn't this kind of coordination.''

Now, however, ``My biggest fear is that we sit here talking about collaboration... (when) we have to prepare for what could be another catastrophic fire this year.'' A third of the county's residents live in wildland interface areas -- houses next to woodland -- he said, ``and there is far more material out there left to burn than there was burned in October.''

Supervisor Shirlee Zane pointed out that the range of priorities is so huge it includes removing thousands of dead trees. One of her constituents in the Fountaingrove neighborhood, she said, told her he was facing $40,000 in costs for removing 40 trees. Whether it's helping people haul out such trees or chip them on the spot, ``we need to give people choices,'' she said.

Chris Grabill, program director for the Sonoma County Conservation Action community group, said he found the board's urgency encouraging, ``especially since it almost seems like fire season is already back.

''Just last night there were those winds,`` he said with a shudder. ''Honestly, I thought, 'where is my passport? Should I get ready to run?'``

A California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection manager said Tuesday that Grabill's fears are not unfounded.

''In California, it's pretty much fire season year-round now,`` said Deputy Chief Scott McLean, pointing out that the state has already fought 246 wildfires in 2018. ''I don't even try use the word 'season' anymore.``

Michael Gossman, head of the Sonoma County Office of Recovery and Resiliency, said his planners ''will be looking at lessons learned all over the state, like after the 1991 fire in Oakland, and putting together some hard plans we can move forward with.`` He added that he will continue to work with experts in the Watershed Collaborative.

Supervisor Lynda Hopkins said she took heart in the fact that so many agencies and community groups, from the state level on down, were coordinating as never before. ''Let's not miss this opportunity when, shockingly, everyone is moving in the same direction,`` she said.

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