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A fire recovery role for Petaluma

Twenty-four days after a deadly firestorm ignited in Sonoma County, prominent members of Petaluma’s community gathered Wednesday to reflect on the city’s role supporting victims while charting a course for the future as the battered county turns its focus to recovery.

The largest of the three blazes – the Tubbs, the Nuns and Pocket fires – were fully contained Tuesday, but scars left by the costliest fires in U.S. history will take much longer to heal, officials said. As flames surrounding Petaluma burned 110,000 acres, nearly 7,000 structures and killed 23, the city remained a safe haven for thousands of displaced residents.

As officials gain a clearer understanding of what aid is needed from the city’s government, the so-called second responders — nonprofit and religious leaders, health care providers, disaster response officials and educators — continue to experience an added strain from survivors in dire need of resources.

Elece Hempel, the executive director of Petaluma Peoples Services Center, said her organization has received 2,000 calls from residents willing to open their homes to fire victims through its Shared Housing and Resource Exchange (SHARE) program. About 325 people have been placed in shared homes.

The nonprofit’s senior meals program has also absorbed 30 additional elderly residents, while county funding to support those services has not yet been reevaluated, she said.

“The new normal is a bigger demand on social services,” said Hempel, who is also a member of the Petaluma Community Relations Council that hosted the meeting at the Petaluma Community Center. “I don’t want to be a whiner, but I just want everybody to be aware that the new normal is going to put a lot of stress on our current and strong safety net.”

Since those who volunteered with fire relief efforts were surrounded by trauma, Petaluma-based marriage and family therapist Sierra Dator urged residents to practice self-care.

“We might think we’re pretty far away in Petaluma since the fire didn’t come here specifically, but through this web … of people impacted, in the long term, we’re going to see a lot more people who show up with mental health issues as a result of this,” she said.

Petaluma City Schools District, which has 7,493 students and 878 staff across 18 schools, opened its Casa Grande High School as an evacuation center. The district has taken in four displaced students, while six staff members lost homes, said Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Linda Scheel.

While two major Sonoma County hospitals closed in the fires, Petaluma Valley Hospital opened a command center to assist relief efforts. In the first seven days, the hospital saw twice as many patients than expected in a typical week, Petaluma Health Care District CEO Ramona Faith said.

“The response from this community was phenomenal – from fire, police, sheriffs, health care providers – everyone did such an exceptional job. I can’t really say I’m surprised because I know Petaluma,” she said.

Jeff Baumgartner, executive director of the American Red Cross’ California Northwest division, also praised the community reaction, including from local first responders.

“The response from first responders ... was heroic and something that was absolutely amazing,” said Baumgartner, who evacuated from his Santa Rosa home in the fire.

Mayor David Glass also touted the work of city staff, such as first responders and top city officials, who mobilized to open emergency operations centers and shelters. A deficit in the city’s budget is looming as staffing levels have already been cut from 335 employees about five years ago to 265 today, he said.

The city council is seeking additional sources of revenue to pad the budget and pay off its daunting pension obligations without deeper cuts to staff and services. It has conducted outreach for a ballot measure to increase taxes associated with hotels stays and real estate transitions. Glass said the fires have highlighted a need to at least maintain current staffing levels and suggested a half or three-quarters cent sales tax increase for 15 to 20 years.

“This was the most severe test and we met it. We can feel good about that, but had this test come 10 years from now, I think we would have been very challenged to have met that test,” he said. “We’re vulnerable at this point as a city and a region with the revenues we will have, the staffing levels we will experience going forward without the augmentation of new revenue,” he said.

B’nai Israel Jewish Center’s Rabbi Ted Feldman, a member of the community relations council, said Petaluma will continue to be a safety net.

“We have the most precious things – ourselves and our community and people who thankfully made it through the trauma, and we’re here to support them and support each other,” he said.

(Contact Hannah Beausang at hannah.beausang@arguscourier.com.)