The night a deadly firestorm ignited in Sonoma County last October, Tennis Wick awoke in his Petaluma home to the smell of smoke and a mobile phone buzzing with 33 text messages. He immediately jumped into action, driving toward the epicenter of the blazes in Santa Rosa.
Wick, the director of Sonoma County’s Permit and Resource Management Department, who also serves as the plans section chief during emergency operations, hasn’t stopped moving since. Though the flames that destroyed nearly 7,000 structures and claimed 24 lives were doused months ago, the work to rebuild the shell-shocked county will last for years to come.
Before the fires, Wick’s department, which handles land use planning and development permitting, was already seeing record traffic, with about 120 people a day at its permit center. Since the fires, that number has nearly quadrupled to as many as 450 people a day.
“We work very closely with colleagues in Santa Rosa and other sister cities, and we’ve all seen the same thing – it started off with a lot of raw emotion … there was a lot of anger and anguish at life,” Wick, 57, said. “And then we saw extraordinary acts of kindness between staff and customers consoling people and giving advice. That’s how it started and it went into the realm of a million questions from people around circumstances that none of us had ever encountered before because of the magnitude of this disaster.”
In his four years at the helm of the department, Wick has responded to four floods, two fires and an earthquake, but he knew the October fires were monumental. The initial weeks were a whirlwind for Wick, who forewent sleep in favor of planning evacuations, coordinating efforts and working with staff to tally early damage estimates.
“I worked pretty much nonstop coordinating, and when I wasn’t in there for a 12-hour shift, I was outside working with staff in the field,” said Wick, who has lived in Petaluma for nearly three decades. “That was pretty much three and a half weeks, and then we moved right into the nature of GIS and mapping the fires and as the fires were contained, we were mapping where we knew based on soil characteristics where debris would flow.”
Wick’s department recently announced plans to open a permit center in mobile offices next to the Santa Rosa headquarters, a facility that will allow for a streamlined permitting process. The time frame for issuing permits will be reduced from months to days, though specifics about fee structure and other potential changes are still being hammered out.
“Permitting is going to happen quickly, but how long it will take people to come through will probably be years,” he said. “It took a long, long time to build 2,000 homes without a disaster, and the disaster makes it more difficult than other economic conditions because this creates a spike in construction material costs and labor costs.”
Still, Wick is hopeful the county can rebuild sensibly while keeping residents in the county.
“There’s a really significant impact on all 10 local governments and on the entire community for housing,” he said. “It’s not limited to where the fires hit in unincorporated Sonoma County and Santa Rosa, this has an impact on housing in every single community, and the solution has to be a cooperative effort.”
Wick said Petaluma should adopt a slate of emergency housing measures embraced by the county and Santa Rosa, which include waiving or reducing fees for homeowners seeking to build granny units, allowing residents to move into temporary living situations, such as RVs or pool houses on their properties or someone else’s land. He also urged officials to accelerate the processing of applications for developments in downtown Petaluma, an urban location near transit hubs.
Petaluma is scheduling a Feb. 12 city council workshop to discuss its post-fire housing policy.
Wick also encouraged all residents to prepare for earthquakes and for civil planners and governments to build with natural disasters in mind.
A Boston native, Wick has long viewed public service as his highest calling. His father served in the Navy and the Coast Guard during World War II as well as the Korean and Vietnam Wars.
During his childhood, Wick’s family was on the move constantly before settling in San Rafael in 1968. He’s stayed in the area since, leaving for a brief stint to obtain a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of California, Santa Barbara and a juris doctorate from San Francisco’s Golden Gate University School of Law. He’s been married to Holly Wick, a downtown Petaluma business owner, since 2005. The couple has four adult children.
During his lengthy career in the private and public sector, he co-founded Sonoma Vermiculture, which diverts food waste from landfills, served on the Petaluma Planning Commission and helped develop the Central Petaluma Specific Plan, a blueprint for development in the heart of the city. He joined the permit and resource management department in 2013.
It’s a demanding job, but one that’s fulfilling for Wick. He’s spent months attending after-hours community meetings, exhausted but still ready to listen to his community.
“You hear personal stories and you’re not tired anymore,” he said. “I realize how fortunate I am to still have a home in a good community. You meet these people who have, through these things, become friends … It’s wonderful to see whole communities and neighborhoods with people who didn’t know each other very well and now they’re all working together to help each other. That makes it totally worth it.”
(Contact Hannah Beausang at firstname.lastname@example.org.)