SANTA ROSA — After burning almost three weeks, the wildfires that devastated the North Bay and killed at least 42 people are nearly contained — but rebuilding may take years, officials warned Saturday.
The first steps toward recovery gained steam this week, with federal officials surveying burned-out properties for hazardous waste. Actual reconstruction of most of the 8,900 destroyed structures likely won’t begin for months.
“It’s going to be a really long haul,” Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey said.
One of the region’s four major wildfires, the Atlas fire, was declared fully contained on Friday night, and the three other fires were all at 97 percent containment as of Saturday afternoon, Cal Fire officials said. Firefighters are still dealing with isolated hot spots, but the worst is over.
Meanwhile, residents gathered Saturday under crystal blue skies on a Santa Rosa football field for a ceremony honoring the victims. Firefighters played drums and bagpipes, attendees said prayers and sung hymns, and a fire bell was rung 42 times for each victim — as well as a 43rd ring for the more than a dozen people who are still missing.
“This was an important opportunity for the community to get together and not be talking just about how I get the ash off my property,” Coursey said. “It was a time to pause collectively and just kind of take a breath.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, and five other Bay Area members of Congress attended the ceremony and toured damaged areas.
“The love that is in the air is thicker than smoke,” Pelosi told attendees, calling the region a “model to the world in rescue, in relief and now, in recovery.”
From Sacramento, Gov. Jerry Brown proclaimed a day of remembrance for the fire victims, ordering flags to be flown at half-staff over the state capitol. “As we mourn for those we have lost, let us dedicate ourselves first to the aid of the survivors and then to the causes of safety and preparedness in our increasingly fire-prone state,” he wrote in the proclamation.
As of Saturday, more than 150,000 acres had burned across Sonoma, Napa and Solano Counties: 51,624 acres in the Atlas fire, 56,556 acres in the Nuns fire, 36,807 acres in the Tubbs Fire, and 17,357 acres in the Pocket Fire.
Officials are now turning to efforts to remove the debris and ash that has blanketed the affected areas. The Environmental Protection Agency is reviewing properties for any hazardous or toxic waste before clearing them for debris removal, and has assessed 740 properties so far.
Coursey said it would likely take three months for all the debris to be removed and actual rebuilding of most houses and structures to begin.
But the larger logistical problem, he predicted, will be finding housing for thousands of displaced families and workers who come to the city to help rebuild. People are calling him from around the country asking to come and help, he said.
“When you’re building whole neighborhoods, replacing 3,000 houses in our city and 6,000 in our county, I don’t know if there are even enough hammers available here to do that — let alone people to swing those hammers,” Coursey said.
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