Top stories of 2017
FIRE!Catastrophic. Tragic. Game-changing. Shocking. Heart-wrenching. All of the above.
Out of control wildfires tore through Northern California beginning in the late evening of Oct. 8, hitting Sonoma County the hardest. At the end of it all, over 5,100 homes burned in the county, causing billions of dollars in damage.
In Sonoma Valley, a number of devastating fires took place, all now referred to as the Nuns Fire.
Over 56,000 acres burned in Sonoma Valley, destroying 407 homes -183 in Glen Ellen, 140 in Kenwood, 48 in the Trinity Road/Cavedale Road area, three in Eldridge, and 33 in the Schell Vista fire area.
There are countless dramatic, heart-stopping stories of residents fleeing the flames in the middle of the night. Seconds mattered as many fled with just the clothes on their back, driving through flames only to run into another fire. One person perished on Cavedale Road. While tragic, it's amazing that more valley residents did not meet the same fate.
Local fire departments were overwhelmed, as low humidity, extremely high winds, and decades of fuel added up to a firestorm that could not be contained or fought effectively.
Calls for back up that first night from first responders could not be answered, as the majority of fire resources were directed to fight the massive Tubbs Fire that bore down on the city of Santa Rosa, causing historic destruction.
In the words of Kenwood Fire Chief Daren Bellach, “The worst case scenario we train for was nowhere near what the worst case scenario actually was.”
A handful of locals stayed behind while the towns were evacuated, helping fire personnel find and put out hotspots, taking care of the many animals that were left behind, watching for looters, feeding firefighters, and more.
After being evacuated for nearly two weeks, Glen Ellen and Kenwood residents came back to streets in ashes - Treehaven, Turtle Creek, Lawndale, Bristol, Schultz, Kenilworth, Adobe Canyon, Goff, Trinity, Cavedale, Henno, O'Donnell, Warm Springs, London Ranch, Hill, Bonnie, Sylvia, West Trinity, Adine, Dunbar, Jerri, and more. Valley parks were severely burned.
County, state and federal officials scrambled to put together a process for recovery, a massive undertaking given the scope of the disaster.
Homeowners whose properties were destroyed had to find places to live, make cleanup decisions, begin the complicated dealings with insurance companies - all while coping with the trauma of losing everything.
Many have opted for the federal Army Corps of Engineers to clean their sites. Countywide, 1,067 sites have been cleaned as of Dec. 12, removing 335,679 tons of debris. In Kenwood and Glen Ellen, the vast majority of burned sites are waiting for the Army Corps, as cleanup crews are first focused on cleaning up neighborhoods in Santa Rosa. At a Board of Supervisors meeting in early December, an Army Corps representative said the goal is to clean all Sonoma County sites by Feb. 15.
The Glen Ellen and Kenwood communities, with the help and generosity of many, are proving resilient. Community meals and get-togethers, housing searches for displaced local families, quilt giveaways, daffodil planting, gifts of food and clothes, fundraisers, Christmas tree and ornament giveaways, general acts of kindness - all have been offered in an effort to help fire victims and the community move forward.
Sonoma Developmental Center closure looms The federally-mandated closure of the Sonoma Development Center remained a huge story in 2017, both from the standpoint of how to safely move the SDC's remaining residents, some of the most fragile in the system, by the end of 2018, a state-imposed deadline, and the secondary impact of what to do with the 900-acre center and all its dwellings.
Patient safety is always cited as the primary concern by all parties charged with the undertaking in the rush to shutter SDC by Dec. 31, 2018. Finding medical services to meet the demands of very low-functioning patients has been a priority, since the services and personnel now concentrated at the Eldridge facility will be scattered to the various Regional Centers who will take over patient care oversight. North Bay (Napa), Golden Gate (San Francisco) and Alta California (Sacramento), along with East Bay (San Leandro) are the principal Regional Centers for SDC residents.
North Bay RC will take the most residents, according to Executive Director Bob Hamilton. North Bay awarded a contract in March to Santa Rosa Community Health Center, a new federally qualified health center specializing in the services SDC residents need. By August, the state added another $2 million to the new health center budget.
The central SDC campus covers 128 acres and consists of approximately 130 structures, and is located on both sides of Arnold Drive, west of Highway 12. To the east and west of the core campus there are approximately 38 additional structures including Camp Via, the wastewater treatment facility and storage tanks, and several farm complexes.
Wallace Roberts Todd (WRT), a nationally recognized urban planning and design consultant, was picked to perform the SDC property assessment study, which is expected to take at least 18 months, although the October fires will certainly have some impact on the timing. Both private and public meetings were cancelled and have yet to be rescheduled.
The firm was chosen in January and has moved quickly to establish the ground rules for assessing the buildings and grounds as well as establishing guidelines for working out what to do with all of that property.
Local people and agencies have been concerned about what will happen to the property, an immensely valuable and beautiful chunk of land in the middle of the Valley of the Moon. Rumors have run the gamut from the land being sold off for development, to total conversion to park land. A consortium of people along with private and public agencies has been formed to oversee the process. “Transform SDC” is being guided by the Sonoma Land Trust, and includes the Sonoma Ecology Center, the County of Sonoma, and dozens of other groups and individuals who have been monitoring and attending events. They have been active at the federal, state and local levels to remain aware of what is happening.
Funding for Regional Parks in question Five decades after the Sonoma County Regional Parks Department began with just one park - Doran Beach - it still does not have a committed stream of revenue from the county budget. That goal was nearly hit this past June when Measure J was narrowly turned down by voters in the unincorporated areas of Sonoma County. Although it received 65.1 percent of the votes, as a special tax, the measure required two-thirds (66.7 percent) approval to pass. The tax would have dedicated funds raised - an estimated $9.5 million over 10 years - directly to Regional Parks.
Over the past decade, Regional Parks' property has increased by 2,000 acres, to a total of 56 parks comprised of 12,000 acres, which receive five million visitors annually, but its funding from the county's general fund has remained relatively flat. On top of that, deferred maintenance is growing by approximately $2 million per year.
Now, after the devastating October wildfires, those costs could rise even higher. While the wild lands within park boundaries will recover on their own, repairing damage to infrastructure and trails will have to be done with manpower at a time when the County budget is being pinched from all sides. On Dec. 11, the Press Democrat reported that Sonoma County estimates it will face a $21 million shortfall at the end of the current fiscal year because of the wildfires. This is from an expected revenue decline of about $10.7 million, which includes the loss of property taxes on damaged homes and businesses, and another $10 million spent by the county on staff overtime and supplies needed in the wake of the worst emergency in the county's history.
Nearly 2,600 acres of regional parkland were impacted by the Tubbs and Nuns fires. Six regional parks experienced fire at some level, and the most affected were Hood Mountain, Shiloh Ranch and Sonoma Valley. One hundred percent of Sonoma Valley burned, 93 percent of Shiloh and about 60 percent of Hood Mountain. Sonoma Valley Regional Park reopened on Thanksgiving Day while the 860-acre Shiloh Regional Park near Windsor re-opened earlier than expected on Dec. 9, but there is still a lot of work to do. Hood Mountain Regional Park remains closed as of press time.
Just how much the fire will cost Regional Parks - in repairs and lost revenue - still remains to be seen.
To that end, Regional Parks plans to return to the Board of Supervisors with a new tax measure. That could be as soon as June 2018, but, as with many things, wildfires may have affected that timeline. Regional Park officials did not reply to a request for comment as of press time.
Kenwood resort moves closer to reality The Sonoma Country Inn resort has one more major governmental hurdle to jump over before it can put a shovel in the ground for its 50-room inn, a project that has been off and on again ever since permits were issued in 2004.
The project, located on a knoll on property on Campagna Lane, off of Sonoma Highway and across from Lawndale Road, includes 17 cottages, a restaurant, spa, pool, and 102 parking spaces.
The use permit approval by the county in 2004 also included entitlements for a winery on the valley floor and 11 home sites, though the developer, Tohigh Investments, is currently focusing on the resort portion.
An October 2016 approval of the design of the resort was appealed by the Valley of the Moon Alliance (VOTMA), which argued that modifications to the original design would have adverse environmental effects and warranted further analysis.
At a hearing in August, the county's Planning Commission unanimously agreed to let the project go forward. That decision was also appealed by VOTMA to the county's Board of Supervisors. The board was due to hear the matter this fall, but the fires forced the matter to be put off. A new hearing date has yet to be scheduled.
A Tohigh representative in August complained that VOTMA was a NIMBY organization that was unnecessarily causing delays to a project that would bring many economic benefits to the county.
VOTMA argues that since the first approval by the county 13 years ago, Sonoma Valley has changed, and that the environmental impacts need updating before going forward, especially when, in VOTMA's opinion, there are substantial changes to the original design.
New chapter for Glen Ellen Fire DepartmentAfter more than a year of discussions and negotiations, the Glen Ellen Fire Department (GEFD) entered into a contract in April with the Valley of the Moon Fire Protection District (VOM) to provide emergency fire and medical services.
A decreasing number of volunteers eroded the Glen Ellen department's ability to ensure timely emergency response to the residents who live within the 18 square miles of the Glen Ellen Fire Protection District.
The deal, which officially took effect July 1, provides Glen Ellen with uninterrupted service by having a VOM captain and engineer/paramedic on site 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Glen Ellen Fire Department volunteers are still needed and available for calls.
The contract, which also includes costs for administrative and management services, is for five years, and renewable after that. The first year's price tag is about $730,000, with year five costing $988,000. Increases over the five-year period are due in part to state-mandated minimum wage increases.
GEFD volunteers remain active on crews responding to fire calls, and still receive necessary training. Community events, such as the Mother's Day Pancake Breakfast, will continue to be put on by the Glen Ellen Firefighters Association.