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Top stories of 2020

Top stories of 2020

DECEMBER 15, 2020

Fire burns through area

2020 was another year of fire stress and disaster, buffeting residents who have endured more than their fair share of pain and misery the last three years So far this year, California has seen over 9,000 wildfire incidents, according to Cal Fire. Fire season in California is starting earlier and ending later, driven by climate change, the culprit behind warmer spring and summer temperatures, reduced snowpack, and increasingly dry conditions overall.

Close to home this summer, residents had to worry about lightning. In August, lightning strikes across numerous counties, including Sonoma and Napa, burned over 360,000 acres, destroying 1,491 structures.

On Sept. 27, the Glass Fire started near St. Helena in Napa County, and moved quickly into Sonoma County, making its way into parts of Oakmont and Kenwood.

308 homes were destroyed in Napa County.

In Sonoma County, 334 single family residences were destroyed, 80 damaged, and 253 other structures incinerated in the areas of St. Helena Road, Skyhawk in Rincon Valley, Los Alamos Road, Melita Road, Oakmont, Sonoma Highway, Pythian Road, and Adobe Canyon Road.

The Glass Fire burned over 67,000 acres, according to Cal Fire.

Once again, our first responders were asked to operate in difficult conditions and worked valiantly to contain the fires. Most notably, they prevented the fire from sweeping into the Oakmont community and its 3,200-plus homes. Only three single-family homes and one triplex near the highway were destroyed.

Local parks took another fire hit this year. At Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, about 75 percent of its 4,900 acres burned. The one structure lost was the iconic Red Barn. At Hood Mountain Regional Park, 80 percent of its 2,000 acres burned to some degree. Clean-up efforts at both parks started immediately after the fire, with park officials confident that, as in previous fires, the natural landscapes will restore themselves in time.

Unlike in 2017 when the community was caught by surprise by fierce wildfires, extensive planning was in place this time for residents to receive evacuation warnings and, if necessary, evacuation orders. Fire agencies of all stripes were as organized and prepared as they could possibly have been, and were successful in many of their plans to attack the fire.

Perhaps with fire season lasting longer and longer, that’s the most we can hope for.

Not that we were looking for anything else to worry about, but along came a deadly worldwide pandemic to turn everything upside down.

SonomaCountyisamicrocosm of experiences in the rest of the state and country, as residents grappled to deal with a disaster they couldn’t see, but was there nonetheless.

In Sonoma County to date, there have been a total of 13,912 cases, which represent 2.7 percent of the county’s population. 10,901 have recovered (77 percent of cases), and there have been 162 deaths (1.2 percent of cases.) The closing down of much of the normal day-to-day activity has taken a toll. Businesses in Oakmont, Glen Ellen and Kenwood have been on the edge since March, trying to survive financially and adapt to the many rules the county has imposed to fight the spread of the virus.

Wineries, tasting rooms, restaurants, and other service-oriented businesses have been hit especially hard. While many applied for federal aid at the beginning, for some, that money is long gone. Endless county and state rules keep coming, and further restrictions were imposed Dec. 12. There have been layoffs, cutbacks, and extra money spent on items required to protect patrons. Perhaps most significant for Sonoma Valley has been the big drop-off in tourism, the lifeblood of many local businesses for much of the year. Kenwood Elementary School and Dunbar Elementary School have been in online learning mode since last spring, with administrators, teachers and staff trying to make the best of an impossible situation. The impact has been large on parents as well, who now have their kids at home during the school day. And of course, the long-range educational impact on children remains to be seen.

Many non-profit organizations in Sonoma Valley, often considered the fabric keeping communities together, have been hit hard. Important fundraising events have been canceled again and again, and general donations have suffered, leaving some programs strapped for cash.

While light at the end of the tunnel is apparent with a vaccine on the way, the lasting effects of COVID will be around for some time.

At the beginning of the year, a homeless shelter, known as Los Guilicos Village (LGV), was built by Sonoma County off of Pythian Road across from Oakmont. At first, it was seen as a temporary emergency solution to house some of the homeless moved off a huge encampment on the Joe Rodota Trail in Santa Rosa.

In January the Board of Supervisors, over the objection of First District Supervisor Susan Gorin, hurriedly approved LGV and its 60 pallet-type structures. Many Oakmonters were adamantly opposed, complainingthattheyhadno chance for input. A number of them expressed concern about the site’s lack of proximity to services, security issues, and increased chance of fire in a wildfire prone area.

Other Oakmonters organized and signed up to volunteer at the shelter, helping serve food, collecting donations of basic necessities, and more.

The original plan was for LGC to remain open until April 30 of 2020, after which the residents would be moved to other housing facilities.

But then the pandemic hit, and the county had to pivot to address a dire new emergency.

LGV continued operating, and in July, the Board of Supervisors continued their conversation about the future of LGV. Supervisor Gorin tried to push her colleagues to set a ‘for certain’ date for closure, but the other supervisors declined to do so, citing the need for every bed during a pandemic of unknown length.

Then, in late September, the Glass Fire hit, forcing LGV residents to evacuate for over a month. A few of the pallet homes were destroyed.

St. Vincent de Paul, the nonprofit operating LGV, has had its contract extended through April 30 of 2021, according the organization’s executive director, Jack Tibbets. It is not known what will happen to LGV after that.

Tibbets said that there are currently 50 residents living at LGV. During its operation, 50 residents have been able to be placed in a permanent housing situation, representing a 30 percent permanent housing success rate.

Susan Chauncy, who sits on Oakmont’s LGV shelter committee, said she has been pleased with the operations of the homeless shelter, but remains “disappointed that the Board of Supervisors chose this costly, distant site originally, and they chose to repopulate it after the fires.”

The process of disposing of the Sonoma Developmental Center’s 945 acres of open space and buildings got underway in 2020, with the selection of Oakland-based planning consultants Dyett & Bhatia to spearhead development of a Specific Plan and the formation of a 15-person Planning Advisory Team (PAT) in January, some three months behind the original schedule. That schedule sets the end of 2021 as the target date for a completed plan for disposing of the state-owned assets at the site.

The PAT consists of 15 people with strong backgrounds in fields associated with the project needs, including urban planning, real estate development, real estate management, history of similar planning, land use and environmental planning, community organizing, and several people from local groups that have been working on the SDC transition for many years.

Glen Ellen resident and author Tracy Salcedo managed to lead a campus walk in February to familiarize people with the built up areas of SDC – before the COVID- 19 pandemic shut down public meetings, derailing plans underway to obtain extensive public input through workshops and other meetings.

By mid-year, ideas were being discussed for having the main administration building declared an historical asset and potential museum and/or library. May and June public meetings were cancelled due to the pandemic, and D& B consultant Emmanuel Ursu replaced Milan Nevajda, who left for personal reasons.

A September report from the county to the State Department of General Services, which manages the transition, suggested that meeting the state’s timeline may be difficult, given the COVID pandemic. It also outlined problems reaching out to Spanish-speaking and lower-income members of the community as required by state rules.

Over 200 people signed into a virtual community workshop on Nov. 1, temporarily overwhelming the technical capacity that provided an opportunity for attendees to join smaller work groups to ponder a vision for the specific plan.

Three alternative scenarios for the future will be developed, one of which will be selected by early next year for an Environmental Impact Report, with completion still set for the end of 2021.


The Los Guilicos Village homeless shelter was rapidly constructed in January.

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