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More benzene found in Santa Rosa water tests after Sonoma County fires


Benzene, the cancer-causing chemical that city officials believe was sucked into its water system in a heavily burned area of Fountaingrove, is continuing to be discovered outside the advisory area, including one place in Coffey Park, city officials acknowledged for the first time this week.

But officials insist the new findings are not an indication the problems in Fountaingrove are migrating to other parts of the city.

However, they have now found 20 locations outside the Fountaingrove advisory zone with elevated levels of benzene. Fourteen of the locations were identified in the last month after the city aggressively expanded its testing program.

All but one — a burned lot on Waring Court in Coffey Park — were located near the advisory zone in Fountaingrove.

City officials said the new problems have been easy to resolve, confirming their conclusion that the 184-acre advisory area in Fountaingrove has a unique and pervasive problem far different than any other area of the city.


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Fountaingrove water system needs $43 million replacement due to contamination after Sonoma County fires


The entire water-delivery system in a 184-acre section of the devastated Fountaingrove neighborhood will likely need replacement after becoming contaminated with benzene, and it appears the city will initially be on the hook for a project whose estimated costs have soared to $43 million.

The intensive investigation into the exact cause of the contamination continues, but officials say they now understand how the cancer-causing hydrocarbon found in gasoline and plastics made it into the water mains in the area.

The city’s team of water engineers, consultants and regulators is “converging on the recommended approach” that would require the “full replacement of the distribution system, from the water mains to the meters on the properties” and related equipment like fire hydrants within the advisory area, Ben Horenstein, director of Santa Rosa Water, said Thursday.

The cost of that solution, which Horenstein had previously estimated at up to $20 million, has now more than doubled, and completion may take significantly longer than the year he initially hoped.

The development raises a host of questions about how quickly the devastated Fountaingrove neighborhood, which lost 1,420 homes in the Tubbs fire, may be able to recover, how the city can fund the needed repairs, and what it means for residents who still live there.


Posted on Categories Land UseTags , , ,

Why Is California rebuilding in fire country? Because you’re paying for it

Christopher Flavelle, BLOOMBERG NEWS

At the rugged eastern edge of Sonoma County, where new homes have been creeping into the wilderness for decades, Derek Webb barely managed to save his ranch-style resort from the raging fire that swept through the area last October. He spent all night fighting the flames, using shovels and rakes to push the fire back from his property. He was even ready to dive into his pool and breathe through a garden hose if he had to. His neighbors weren’t so daring—or lucky.

On a recent Sunday, Webb wandered through the burnt remains of the ranch next to his. He’s trying to buy the land to build another resort. This doesn’t mean he thinks the area won’t burn again. In fact, he’s sure it will. But he doubts that will deter anyone from rebuilding, least of all him. “Everybody knows that people want to live here,” he says. “Five years from now, you probably won’t even know there was a fire.”

As climate change creates warmer, drier conditions, which increase the risk of fire, California has a chance to rethink how it deals with the problem. Instead, after the state’s worst fire season on record, policymakers appear set to make the same decisions that put homeowners at risk in the first place. Driven by the demands of displaced residents, a housing shortage, and a thriving economy, local officials are issuing permits to rebuild without updating building codes. They’re even exempting residents from zoning rules so they can build bigger homes.

State officials have proposed shielding people in fire-prone areas from increased insurance premiums—potentially at the expense of homeowners elsewhere in California—in an effort to encourage them to remain in areas certain to burn again. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) spent a record $700 million on fire suppression from July to January, yet last year Governor Jerry Brown suspended the fee that people in fire-prone areas once paid to help offset those costs.

Critics warn that those decisions, however well-intentioned, create perverse incentives that favor the short-term interests of homeowners at the edge of the wilderness—leaving them vulnerable to the next fire while pushing the full cost of risky building decisions onto state and federal taxpayers, firefighters, and insurance companies. “The moral hazard being created is absolutely enormous,” says Ian Adams, a policy analyst at the R Street Institute, which advocates using market signals to address climate risk. “If you want to rebuild in an area where there’s a good chance your home is going to burn down again, go for it. But I don’t want to be subsidizing you.”


Posted on Categories Land Use, Sustainable LivingTags , , , ,

After fires, a push to fix housing crisis


As it emerged from the Great Recession and a moribund housing market, Sonoma County in 2011 needed seven years to build nearly 5,000 new homes.

The fires of October wiped a greater number of houses and apartments off the map here in a single day.

The unprecedented disaster deepened an existing housing crisis and fueled calls by local officials to dramatically accelerate the pace of new home construction — perhaps to a level never before seen in the county, even in the decadeslong building boom following World War II.

By two recent estimates, a yawning gap exists between the housing stock the county had before the fires — about 208,000 homes, apartments and other units — and what is needed to keep the economy growing and to comfortably house a wide range of workers and families.

It could be as high as 30,000 units — equivalent to what exists in Rohnert Park, Windsor and Sebastopol — according to county supervisors, who set that figure as an ambitious five-year building target that would include both the burn areas and surrounding communities.

“We are eroding the character of our county by not allowing people who work here to live here and be a part of the community,” said Board of Supervisors Chairman James Gore. The county, he said, came up with its estimate of 30,000 homes “not as a hopeful aspiration, but as an analysis of how much we’re short from a healthy housing market.”

But some leaders in the local building and real estate industry say there is no conceivable way for the county to build 6,000 houses and apartments a year, equivalent to completing 16 homes a day. The obstacles, builders say, include insufficient levels of labor, materials and projects ready to go.


Posted on Categories Climate Change & Energy, Land Use, Sustainable LivingTags , , ,

Green rebuilding group to host Santa Rosa expo on Feb. 23


Like many, Sarah and Bruce King watched in horror as the wildfires burned through the North Bay in October, leaving them to wonder how they might aid the recovery when the smoke cleared.

The San Rafael couple have backgrounds in sustainable construction through a two-decade-old nonprofit called Ecological Building Network, or EBNet. So they were uniquely positioned to make an immediate impact. In late October, along with green building consultant Ann Edminster of Pacifica and Sustainable North Bay executive director Oren Wool of Graton, the Kings hosted a small dinner at their home in late October and got to work.

The group formed a new organization, Rebuild Green Coalition, and decided to hold a one-day workshop in December, inviting others with expertise to the table. The idea was to brainstorm ideas for how Sonoma County and other affected areas could tap new technologies and modern home designs that reduce carbon footprint to help communities recover with greater post-fire resiliency.

“It’s one thing to build green, it’s another for how to actually do it,” said Sarah King. “With the wildland-urban interface, which is big up toward the hills, how do we make that more resistant? That’s the name of the game in a lot of areas, especially where the fires took place, and what happened here is equally applicable for Southern California.”


Posted on Categories Land Use, Sustainable LivingTags , , ,

Fire ecology’s lessons for a more resilient future

Leilani Clark, CIVIL EATS

“Bigger homes, closer together is a recipe for more fuel on the landscape,” says Gregory L. Simon, an associate professor of geography and environmental sciences at the University of Colorado and author of Flame and Fortune in the American West. “In my opinion, we shouldn’t be building homes in areas of high fire risk at all. It’s not a matter of building fire-safe construction or zoning in certain ways. Simply because of the loss of life involved and the risk to first responders.

A few times a year, Edward Willie tends to the last remaining dogbane patch in Sonoma County. Situated on a three-acre preserve bordering Highway 101 in northern Santa Rosa, the patch is estimated to be centuries old and once spanned a five-mile radius. Neighboring tribes—mainly Pomo and Wapo—cultivated the fibrous, stalky native plants to make cordage for hunting and fishing nets and other tools.

In October, the Tubbs Fire burned hot and fast through the preserve on its way to hopping the six-lane highway, leaving behind a scorched landscape of Himalayan blackberry roots and the black skeletons of wild plum trees and coyote bush. Yet, for the most part, the dogbane survived. In some formerly vegetation-choked areas of the preserve, the spindly plants are all that remain.

“The dogbane needs fire—that’s what makes it grow tall and strong,” says Willie, a native Pomo, Walaeki, and Wintu teacher and cofounder of the Buckeye Gathering, an annual nature-based, paleo-technology meeting in Northern California. Researchers have found that dogbane sprouts quickly after fire and can become more abundant. Burning actually stimulates new, straight growth.

Less than a mile away from the preserve, block after block of ruined homes, businesses, and cars stand as a reminder of the conflagration that wreaked havoc across three Northern California counties. Despite the scope of the tragedy, Willie sees regeneration and even radical hope in the region’s fire ecology.

“It’s a happy [dogbane] patch now,” he says, as he demonstrates how to peel the taut fibers from the plant’s stalk. “It’s filled with life. New sprouts are already coming up. It’s a California plant, a fire plant. It was made to survive this.”

There is no silver lining to a fire like those that struck Sonoma and Napa counties in October, or the still-burning Thomas Fire in Southern California, which has burned 281,900 acres to become the largest California wildfire in modern recorded history. But for people like Willie and Erik Ohlsen, an ecological designer and director of the Permaculture Skills Center in Sebastopol, the North Bay fires are a wake-up call, a chance to proactively address the way the plants and animals of Northern California, and most of the Golden State, have co-evolved with fire—and to rebuild these communities with fire in mind.

Others go further, saying that poor planning and land management practices turned a natural feature of chaparral landscapes into a catastrophic force, leaving in its wake $3 billion in estimated damages. The city of Santa Rosa alone has already blown through $5 million from their general fund to fight the fires and the massive recovery effort has just begun.

Read more at: Fire Ecology’s Lessons for a More Resilient Future | Civil Eats

Posted on Categories Climate Change & Energy, Land Use, Sustainable LivingTags , , ,

California’s massive fires reveal our illusion of control over disasters 

Faith Kearns, BAY NATURE

I drove away from the Pepperwood Preserve in the Sonoma County hills on a hot and windy Sunday evening in October feeling hopeful. I’d spent part of the day talking with members of the California Naturalist Program about wildfire-induced emotional trauma in the region. As I arrived home in Berkeley later that evening, however, that peculiar fire weather feeling Joan Didion described as when the “winds show us how close to the edge we are” kicked into overdrive.

Several hours later, I awoke to the overwhelming smell of smoke and the news that people all over the Bay Area were hearing: a number of large fires were running wild through the beautiful place I’d left just the night before.

As the days went on, a horrifying picture emerged. Story after story of sudden and terrifying evacuations appeared. Whole neighborhoods had been awoken in the middle of the night by people—some police and firefighters, but many simply neighbors—banging on doors or honking horns as emergency alert systems lagged.

These reports from citizens are harrowing enough on their own but, as a scientist working on disasters like drought and wildfire in California for over a decade, I’m especially struck by the changing commentary from the emergency response community itself. As an example, Cal Fire Chief Ken Pimlott told the Sacramento Bee that “it’s becoming more the norm now to have multiple damaging fires” at the same time. In the Ventura County Star, Cal Fire Battalion Chief Jonathon Cox said the fire was “unstoppable.” Santa Rosa Fire Chief Tony Gossner noted the pace of alerts and evacuations simply couldn’t keep up with the pace of the fire. These are remarkable statements from top-down, command-and-control institutions.

Read more at: California’s Massive Fires Reveal Our Illusion of Control Over Disasters – Bay Nature

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EPA has cleared 5,567 Sonoma, Napa properties of hazardous waste


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said Friday it has removed household hazardous waste from three-quarters of Sonoma and Napa county properties destroyed or damaged during last month’s North Bay wildfires.The EPA said that since its hazardous waste removal operations began Oct. 27, it had cleaned 5,567 properties in both counties. The federal agency has collected items such as small paint cannisters, large chemical drums, corrosive or toxic cleaners, solvents, oils, batteries, herbicides and pesticides.

The items removed have been transported to EPA staging areas in Windsor and Yountville before they are sent to permanent disposal locations. EPA officials said the cleanup of hazardous waste is necessary before state and federal agencies can remove ash and other debris.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or On Twitter @renofish.

Source: EPA has cleared 5,567 Sonoma, Napa properties of hazardous waste

Posted on Categories Land Use, Sustainable LivingTags , ,

After fires, Sonoma County speeds sale of Santa Rosa property eyed for new apartments


Sonoma County has for several years wanted to sell a vacant building complex it owns in west Santa Rosa, but with the devastating October wildfires having intensified the region’s housing crisis, local officials now hope to get the property in the hands of a private developer faster than originally planned.

The county’s Community Development Commission this week released a request for developers to show their qualifications and interest in building new housing at 2150 W. College Ave. Prospective applicants have until 3 p.m. Monday to respond, and county supervisors could decide to move forward in some fashion the next day.

“We already had a housing shortage, and so every development that can be expedited and we can get out of the way in government to make stuff happen — I think that’s the order of the day,” said Margaret Van Vliet, the commission’s executive director.

County officials previously estimated the 7.5-acre site could support 170 apartments. Van Vliet thinks the property could ultimately house closer to 200 units.

The commission bought the property, which was formerly the headquarters of the county Water Agency, for $4.2 million this summer and then kicked off a process to select an apartment developer. But after the fires last month wiped out 5 percent of Santa Rosa’s housing stock, along with thousands of other homes outside city limits, the county decided it needed to speed up the process as much as possible.

Read more at: After fires, Sonoma County speeds sale of Santa Rosa property eyed for new apartments

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Blazing speed: UGB’s come up for a vote and post-fire rebuild plans come into focus


It would be inaccurate to say that the fire-limiting qualities of so-called urban growth boundaries and community separators were vindicated in the North Bay fires.

After all, as Teri Shore notes, the catastrophic Tubbs fire swept through the Fountaingrove neighborhood, crossed the community separator there, jumped into Santa Rosa’s urban growth boundary (UGB) and then burned it up.

Shore, regional director at the Greenbelt Alliance, has embraced UGBs and community separators. Urban growth boundaries took root decades ago in places like San Jose, Boulder, Colo., and Sonoma County as part of a new urbanism vernacular of “livable cities,” “walkable cities,” “resilient cities” and other sobriquets to indicate a civic emphasis on high-density development in order to keep the surrounding lands pristine in their agricultural and biodiverse glory—as they set out to reduce sprawl, not for fire protection per se, but to save farms and communities and local cultures. The community separators indicate the area between developed areas which comprise the urban growth boundary.

It would be a “huge leap to say that the community separator or urban growth boundary could have prevented [the fires],” Shore says. “On the other hand, it could have been worse if we had built more outside of the city boundaries.”

In other words, the regional UGBs may have played a role in the fires akin to the “chicken soup rule” when you’re sick: in the event of a catastrophic fire, UGBs can’t hurt, and they might even help limit the damage to property.

“We’re thinking through it,” says Shore of the relationship between preventing fires and the rebuilding path forward, and the role of greenbelts in the rebuild.

“I don’t know if there’s a correlation,” she says, “but clearly keeping our growth within the town and cities, instead of sprawling out, potentially reduces the impact from wildfires.”

Read more at: Blazing Speed | News | North Bay Bohemian