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Fire’s lasting impact on Petaluma

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In the early hours of Oct. 9, 2017, Hans Mattes and his partner, Carole LaRue, were awoken by branches falling on their home in Santa Rosa’s Fountaingrove neighborhood. As flames engulfed the landscape, they jumped into their car and drove through a wall of smoke so thick that Mattes could hardly keep the car on the road.

They kept driving to Petaluma, where they have friends who would shelter them in the initial aftermath of the worst natural disaster to befall Sonoma County. A few days later, knowing that their home of 22 years and everything in it was lost forever, the couple purchased a house on Petaluma’s west side.

“We’re thinking of this as a new chapter in our lives,” said Mattes, 75, a retired engineer, who worked at Bell Labs and Hewlett Packard. “We were not injured. We had insurance. Now we get to start over. We’re really enjoying life in Petaluma. It is a delightful place to be.”

Mattes and LaRue, 78, are two of the thousands of lives forever altered by the firestorms that swept through the county one year ago. While Petaluma was spared the damage inflicted on Santa Rosa and Sonoma Valley, the fire’s impact was certainly felt in the city.

From newly resettled evacuees squeezing the housing market to an influx of homeless people, Petaluma has absorbed new residents in the wake of the fires that destroyed 5,300 homes countywide. The fire was a learning opportunity for Petaluma first responders and city officials, who have been debriefing and refining procedures in preparation for the next big disaster.

The fire tested Petaluma’s trademark spirit of volunteerism and generosity as residents stepped up to help neighbors. And the fire has revealed lingering trauma, as the wounds are still fresh for many around the one year anniversary, and even the smell of smoke can trigger worry.

Housing challenges remain

Any vacancies that Petaluma had were quickly filled after the fires, said Sue Castellucci, the director of the city’s housing division.

A major apartment complex vacancy survey in April found that only 2.1 percent of the Petaluma’s 3,136 total apartments were available, which was partially inflated due to the influx of new units at Addison Ranch, Castellucci said.

Otherwise, the vacancy rate has remained relatively consistent, around 1 percent.

“Over the year, I’d say Petaluma has made some progress in getting units on the ground in both for-sale and rentals,” Castellucci said. “In the future, I think there’s projects that have been approved and waiting for financing … so there’s other apartment projects coming up.”

Altura Apartments, Brody Ranch and Marina Apartments will bring a combined 380 units to Petaluma, with the former two providing a total of 48 affordable housing units.

At the moment, housing projects providing more than 2,000 combined units are either in the planning process, approved or under construction. Until those come to fruition, though, thousands of residents across the county continue to be impacted by the chronic shortage of housing.

Sarah Quinto, chief development officer at Petaluma’s Committee on the Shelterless, said approximately 21,000 people remain precariously housed across Sonoma County, stuck in temporary housing situations. About half of that amount is due to the fires.

“There are a lot of people that are saying it’s just harder,” Quinto said. “(They say) ‘I can’t afford this community; I can’t find anything in this community.’ That challenge has gotten to be greater.”

While the demand for shelter and COTS services like its Rapid Re-Housing program have remained high, Quinto said applicants are becoming more amenable to more unique adaptations on housing – like families taking on roommates or homebuyers willing to pursue smaller spaces.

“It’s pretty incredible given what the housing market is like,” she said. “I say this over and over, but we wouldn’t exist if people could do this on their own.”

Lessons learned by first responders

The Petaluma Fire Department had a tough decision to make during the early morning hours of Oct. 9, 2017, but there was little doubt for the on-duty battalion chief, Jeff Holden, what the right call was.

Assistant fire chief Jeff Schach said the city had “never sent that many emergency resources out of the city as we did that night.”

Usually fire departments deploy one engine to provide mutual aid since agencies from around the region will do the same, Schach said. But that night, with large-scale evacuations needed and the reach of the Tubbs Fire constantly growing, Petaluma Fire sent everything it could — down to one engine protecting a city of more than 60,000, fire officials said.

“When you hear firefighters screaming for help and they’re evacuating people, that’s a decision that has to be made,” Schach said. “We have internally realized that’s a risk we have to take when our neighbors are in need. We’ve never faced that challenge, but that’s one of those things we have to do — and the right thing to do.”

As Petaluma firefighters worked long stretches to assist with containment, many were forced to do so with agencies from other cities. That experience underscored Petaluma Fire’s growing need for establishing a fully-equipped “reserve apparatus,” one that’s stocked with 100 percent of the gear it needs.

Schach said the department is currently missing several key components. The biggest hurdle to obtaining those resources is funding.

For the Petaluma Police Department, the initial objective was to provide support for law enforcement helping with neighborhood checks, traffic control and every element of large-scale evacuations, said Lt. Brian Miller.

But the situation kept evolving, and response areas were often being overtaken by flames, forcing police to constantly move. It quickly became a constant triage, with officers going wherever the most pressing issues developed.

“The unprecedented thing, there wasn’t a lot of direction,” Miller said. “Things were coming in fluidly and dynamically.”

Miller said the entire ordeal gave Petaluma Police a glimpse of what it’s like managing a large crisis with state and federal support coming in. It took multiple days for the Red Cross to make it to Petaluma and, until they arrived, local police essentially provided that bridge of support.

Additionally, Miller said it fundamentally changed how the department views things, and built chemistry exponentially for a group that was gelling at the time.

“For us, it was a really good learning experience here internally at the police department,” Miller said. “We have a new command staff with a relatively short experience in rank, and it was a good opportunity (for everyone to work together).”

What residents might notice most, however, is the renewed enthusiasm in Nixle alerts, which the department has wholeheartedly embraced as a tool for transparency and improving public safety.

“I think we’ve polished our procedures with getting things timely, being accurate and forecasting what they need to know, should know and want to know,” Miller said.

City emergency response training

On Oct. 18, city employees will perform their annual emergency operations center activation exercise. A key element at this year’s training will be the lessons learned from each section involved, specifically what worked, what didn’t and what to recommend going forward.

The city’s current EOC site is the briefing room at the Petaluma Police station, which gets transformed during a disaster, redeploying phones and trading computers for laptops since the city doesn’t currently have the capacity for a dedicated EOC, Schach said.

The city follows an incident command system, with designated tasks and departments assigned to specific aspects of mitigating a disaster.

City Manager John Brown and Assistant City Manager Scott Brodhun manage the entire center in 12-hour shifts. Operations is run by Police Chief Ken Savano, logistics is led by economic development manager Ingrid Alverde, planning is handled by Fire Marshal Jessica Power and finances are overseen by financial director Corey Garberolio.

Each command chief has a back-up and a team to help implement its objectives, totaling 40 people, officials said. Petaluma’s EOC would also receive support and resources from the county.

“The goal of an EOC is to support field resources and support what the needs are of incidents out in the community,” Schach said.

With thousands of evacuees providing a population swell within the city, last year’s fires provided Petaluma’s EOC with a legitimate test.

City officials have uncovered a number of areas that need to be improved, chief among them the various technology being employed. That’s something Alverde has been working on, Schach said.

If the EOC is running smoothly, there’s continuity in the day-to-day functions of a city government. However, the toll of a 24-hour operation weighed heavily on the managing staff last October, indicating a greater need for depth so top officials can rest and deputy administrators can get more training.

“There was still business to be done and people that were high level directors, they needed time to do their normal duties as well,” Schach recalled.

Volunteerism extends beyond fires

In the immediate aftermath of the first night of the fire, 10 different shelters, inundated with donations and volunteers to the point they were turning both commodities away, popped up throughout the city.

City officials estimated as many as 2,000 evacuees took refuge in Petaluma, seeking food, shelter and medical treatment at local schools, churches and various community outposts. Local businesses and restaurants selflessly donated their time and resources, overwhelming each shelter with everything they needed.

Away from the shelters, support for fire victims took different forms. One example was by the Petaluma Mothers’ Club, which provided more than $45,000 worth of gift cards from donors all over the world, said Megan Cusimano, former president of the nonprofit.

As shelters were at capacity for donations, a volunteer from the Mothers’ Club quickly realized displaced fire victims needed cash for gasoline or specific clothing, rather than used items or perishable food, Cusimano said.

With some assistance from councilwoman Kathy Miller and Petaluma People Services Center director Elece Hempel, the Mothers’ Club was able to distribute the gift cards appropriately, giving immediate relief to some of the most sensitive refugees.

“It was going right in their hands immediately. I would drop them off in the morning and they’d be gone by the evening,” said Cusimano, who also helped displaced residents find temporary housing for PPSC.

Since then, Hempel said Cusimano and club president Madeline Backman have embraced volunteerism for her organization – part of a bigger trend of increased community involvement she believes is directly connected to the experience of helping others during the fires.

Cusimano is just one example of that.

“For me, at PPSC, the roles that I was given, I was able so quickly to have an impact,” Cusimano said. “Working the phones and hearing the cries and listening to the individual stories of the victims, it was really powerful … it was really rewarding staying connected and giving back.”

The toll of being there for others

Sonoma County mental health officials described a “special kind of stress” being experienced by Petalumans. Residents selflessly hosted and supported evacuees, but that also meant they witnessed profound pain firsthand, which can leave an impression.

“Sometimes people forget that you don’t necessarily have to have lost a home to be emotionally impacted by the experience,” said Wendy Wheelwright, Sonoma County’s project manager for California HOPE.

As the training coordinator of the county’s Behavioral Health Division, Wheelwright has helped bring the $3.4 million in FEMA grant funding to life, providing free counseling for fire victims through four different organizations, including PPSC.

The program connects clients in three or less sessions to resources that are going to sustain them long-term, Wheelwright said.

HOPE has averaged about 1,000 people per month, but saw a surge in July and August when the Mendocino Complex Fires clouded the region with smoky skies. In August alone, the program treated more than 5,000 patients, Wheelwright said.

Many victims had little opportunity to mourn. Identifying a new living situation or filing an insurance claim sent many Sonoma County residents into “go-mode,” she said, internalizing the trauma until it manifested in physical symptoms much later, like headaches, stomach pains, random bouts of crying or sleep loss.

“The emotional impact tends to last longer than the physical impact,” Wheelwright said. “FEMA and other disaster response agencies have learned through other experiences that if you don’t tend to those needs, the recovery of the overall community suffers.”

Finding the silver lining

Even through his ordeal of losing everything and starting over, Mattes has remained upbeat, and he feels lucky to have landed in Petaluma. He said he has felt more connected to the community in Petaluma after one year here than he did during 20 years in Santa Rosa. He reflected on life one year removed from the event that he refuses to call a tragedy.

“The fire put things in perspective,” he said. “Things are transient. Relationships are far more important than the stuff that we have. Attitude is everything.”