It’s been more than a year since the 2017 Redwood Valley Fire raced through the sleeping midnight community the terrible night of October 8. It was one of more than a dozen fires, dubbed the October 2017 Fire Siege, that began that night. The Redwood Valley Fire burned a third of the Redwood Valley-Calpella Fire Department’s 61 square-mile territory and killed nine people, at least half of whom died trying to escape in their cars or on foot. Nearly 550 structures, mostly private residences, were destroyed.
This report is a snapshot of how firefighting practices may change as a result of the chaotic days following the 2017 fire, and what residents are facing financially and bureaucratically as they rebuild their homes and pay for mandated, frequently confusing upgrades as they struggle to rebuild on their properties.
Redwood Valley-Calpella Fire Chief Don Dale manages his district with four paid staffers and 20 volunteers. The department has a total of “6 or 7” vehicles, two of which are equipped with PA systems – not enough to alert all residents in the most remote areas of the sprawling valley to evacuate their homes. Dale said that CalFire takes the lead on major fires and that several of the state agency’s employees live locally and were on their radios immediately, though their initial report was of a vegetation fire.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Dale said. “The winds were 60-70 mph and moving back and forth east to west.” Hurricane-force winds technically begin at 74 mph, and Dale said that training his firefighters to fight fires in high winds has been one of his focuses over the past year. Examining and revising their policy on how and when residents can return to their homes to retrieve pets or check on relatives and neighbors who may not have evacuated is another undertaking.
“We’ve beat ourselves up over that,” he said. “Hindsight is always better than what really happened.” He said that his department will also be more proactive in fire abatement. “We’re gonna be a lot stricter in clearing out brush around houses,” he said. “I like rose bushes around my house as much as the next person but it’s not gonna happen anymore.”
Then there’s the money: who pays how much for what. Redwood Valley resident Wendy Robin Escobar and her husband Tilo lost everything when their house on Road I burned to the ground, and she has since become a self-described advocate for more monetary relief from the county’s building permit fees.
Sitting in the tiny trailer she and her husband live in on their burned-out property on Road I, roosters crowed and their three dogs made themselves at home, one taking up every inch of one of the couches. The family parrot, Jayce, emerged unscathed from the fire though part of her cage melted. The couple's chickens and rabbits perished, and her husband performed their mass burial with a backhoe.
One small corner of the Escobar's trailer held the laptop and FAX machine Escobar uses for her work as a paralegal for a personal injury law firm in San Francisco. She’s also a pastry chef. Her husband Tilo is a self-employed handyman.
Escobar gave me a copy of her building permit, which broke down county fee charges totaling more than $6,000; it includes a construction fee ($1,706.95), a general plan maintenance fee ($1,435.16), plancheck fees ($1,739.31), and eight other county fees.
“[My] insurance will not cover the cost of required upgrades,” she said, things like “a septic tank ($7,200), or a sprinkler system” (mandated by the state). “We paid when we built the house to begin with,” she said. “They could have reduced them way down, charged a remodel permit instead of a full permit. Remodel permits are almost nothing. Have some mercy on us; we don’t have any money anymore!”
Escobar pled her case at the September 11 Board of Supervisors meeting in Ukiah, to no avail. But she says she won’t give up holding the supervisors’ feet to the fire (sic), and if she can’t secure time on a future agenda so she and her neighbors can publicly voice their complaints she will circulate a petition or even file an injunction in superior court against charging the county’s high permit fees.
Escobar said the County’s supervisors don’t realize the long-term financial loss of not giving fire victims a break on their many permit fees. “Look at the taxes lost if people move away, she said. “It’s forcing us out of here, and if you do that there won’t be any taxes, you’ll just have empty land.” She added that many neighbors have already left — permanently. “One neighbor is moving back to England, and another neighbor’s wife won’t even go back to [the site of] her former house.”
Looking around the tiny trailer, she mused that she loves living in Mendocino County but has lost all respect for its government. “They just want the money,” she said. “They put money over people. How much more blood can we give you?”
Carre Brown is Supervisor for the County’s First District east of Ukiah, which encompasses Potter Valley, Redwood Valley, Calpella, and Talmage. She said that the County cannot legally pay all or part of the permit fees, that state law prohibits it from doing so. She referenced the state’s prohibition against “making a gift of public funds” enshrined in the state’s constitution, specifically Article XVI, Section 6. The article states, in part, that the “Legislature shall have no power to give or to lend, or to authorize the giving or lending, of the credit of the State, or of any county, city and county, city, township or other political corporation or subdivision of the State now existing, or that may be hereafter established, in aid of or to any person, association, or corporation, whether municipal or otherwise, or to pledge the credit thereof, in any manner whatever, for the payment of the liabilities of any individual, association, municipal or other corporation whatever; nor shall it have power to make any gift or authorize the making of any gift, of any public money or thing of value to any individual, municipal or other corporation whatever."
This doesn’t mean that fire victims received no assistance; because the President declared the fire area a major disaster area (the highest federal disaster level) at the request of Governor Jerry Brown (who also declared the area a state disaster), FEMA provided, among other things, individual and community assistance to residents in some areas including debris removal, repairs to roads, bridges, and water control facilities. Because of the presidential major disaster declaration, FEMA also paid fire victims $35,000 within the fire’s actual footprint to help them rebuild what they had lost. Nonprofits like Red Cross and local organizations like Mendocino Rebuilding our Community (ROC), Community Foundation, Northcoast Opportunities, and the County itself also offered a scattered patchwork of assistance aimed at a variety of immediate and long-term resident needs.
But those high permit fees still stick in many residents’ craws. The charges don’t pass the logic sniff taste. If a fulltime building inspector is already on the county’s payroll with full benefits, for example, why are there extra charges when he or she inspects a site, which is part of his or her job description?
“Those fees are based on county salaries,” Brown explained, “that [the county and state] agree on when they put together a master fee schedule every year. Inspectors that go out are paid through the building fee. If there’s no business we have to downscale.” Understood. But there’s really no way to charge, say, the lesser remodel fee, or to somehow subsidize at least part of those fees for cash-strapped fire victims? Apparently the negotiated joint state/county fee schedule and state statute, that kind of individual monetary aid is not possible since it would technically fall under the prohibited “gift of public funds” constitutional prohibition.
Mendocino County Counsel Kit Elliott called me between meetings. “The one main role of the Board of Supervisors is money management,” she explained, unironically. “One of the mandates is that they can’t make a gift of public funds.” She said there are some exceptions – like for a fire district – but that those exceptions don’t legally extend to paying or subsidizing county permit fees for individuals rebuilding after a fire.
But that doesn’t mean laws can’t be changed. Building more flexibility into the county’s permit fee structure is at its root a matter of political will. California’s current constitution, ratified on May 7, 1879, has been amended over 500 times, roughly half of the document itself. According to Wikipedia, it is the eighth longest constitution in the world (though in the U.S. Alabama’s is longer).
Escobar is part of an activist push that could help drive a constitutional change allowing lower building fees after disasters; she thinks such a change would ultimately ensure long-term rather than short-term money for the county. “The county has never had it so good as when the fire came,” she said, noting that fire victims who chose to stay and rebuild are paying taxes on everything they buy locally from pots and pans to appliances to furniture to everything in between to rebuild their post-fire lives.
And maybe it’s time to better fit policies to the new climate realities on the ground. “This is California, everybody knows that this is a fire state,” said Escobar. “What are you going to do for us?”
Brown, a Potter Valley resident and a fire victim herself, also sees a looming new reality. “…basically the fire went away from us and into Redwood Valley. Winds changed the next morning and Potter Valley was surrounded. It happened so fast it was like a fire torch. How can you even build fire breaks when it moves so fast that it can jump a freeway?” She conceded that providing housing in a county already plagued by housing shortages has been “the biggest challenge since the disaster.” She also pointed out that, in fairness, the county provided financial relief for fire victims when it could do so within what she describes as the narrow confines of state law. “We waived the fee for trailers placed on properties. We were able to waive the administration fee of $100. We waived power pole fees, [and] the Board deferred what was owed.”
On the prevention side, Brown said the county is looking into purchasing fire cameras for rugged terrain and various alert systems. “There’s more to be done,” she said.
So the county, fire districts, CalFire, FEMA, local law enforcement, and a mishmash of community and local non-profits are cobbling together some fixes that will presumably help for the next inevitable fire that sweeps through. But living out in what my parents and their friends called God’s country, Santa Rosa notwithstanding, will almost always carry more fire risk than living in a town or a city. Brown said, “One woman told me that she chooses to live in the middle of the forest, loves it, and knows that she might die one day for it.”