Sean Burns’ daily routine has long included a no-hurry mix of business and banter as he greets customers at his Mail & More Store in northwest Santa Rosa.
But after losing his Coffey Park home and fighting to save the nearby shopping center from a deadly wildfire, the 53-year-old Navy veteran finds that life and business have changed.
Revenues from his Hopper Avenue store dropped 25 percent for two months after the October fires swept across the northern edge of Santa Rosa. Business insurance will cover some of those losses.
A greater challenge, Burns said, involves working in the midst of a neighborhood where flames consumed more than 1,200 homes and at least a dozen businesses.
“It reminds me of it every two seconds,” he said of his store’s proximity to the destruction. “That’s what gets to be a little tough after a while.”
Coffey Park was ravaged by the Tubbs fire, part of a series of wildfires that claimed 24 lives and destroyed more than 5,100 homes in Sonoma County. In Santa Rosa, the flames burned 3,000 homes and damaged or destroyed 29 businesses.
The tract subdivisions of Coffey Park lie next to an expansive commercial and industrial area that includes a mix of manufacturers, storage centers and retailers, including tire and car businesses, fast-food restaurants and fitness centers.
Hopper Avenue and Piner Road are two key entryways to the residential area. Both have restaurants and stores that neighbors have frequented for years.
Bill’s Market, which sits on Hopper a few doors down from Mail & More, is considered a corner grocery store, said Jeff Okrepkie, chairman of the Coffey Strong neighborhood rebuilding group.
Before their home burned, Okrepkie and his wife, Stephanie, used to go for dinner near the market at Luigi’s Restaurant because the food was good and the staff didn’t care if their 2-year-old son “made a big old mess.” Also, he said, many neighbors enjoyed stopping in and meeting friends at the taprooms of three nearby breweries.
“It’s something that contributes to the sense of neighborhood or community,” he said of the range of local merchants.
At the small shopping center on Hopper, four of the owners or workers lost homes in the fires. In the early hours of the disaster, many of its business people worried the flames had claimed their shops and restaurants.
Burns, whose neatly trimmed beard has grown a little grayer during 27 years at the center, manages the property and has an interest in it with his family. On the morning of the fire, he was unable to save his home on San Marcos Drive, so he next drove to the squat, rectangular collection of nine storefronts.
For the next 15 hours he worked with a neighbor and family members, spraying down the center’s flat roofs and pouring 5-gallon buckets of water on smoldering bark chips in landscaping across the street. Other store owners at the center credited those steps with keeping their businesses safe.
The fire jumped the freeway and burned along the north side of Hopper, damaging or destroying restaurants, a storage unit facility and an apartment complex before spreading into the single-family homes of Coffey Park.
The destruction, while hit and miss, also extended south down Cleveland Avenue to Piner. The flames destroyed a Kmart and damaged a Trader Joe’s and a Kohl’s department store. Kohl’s plans to reopen this month.
After the fires, businesses near Coffey Park stayed closed for at least a few days. When the companies reopened, many owners wondered what the loss of 1,200 households would mean to their bottom lines.
“In the beginning I was so scared,” recalled Wafa Jolivette, who with her husband, Mike, owns Mel’s Fish and Chips, an eatery next door to Mail & More. To compound matters, the couple lost their Larkfield home in the fires.
Surprisingly business has remained fairly good, the Jolivettes said. They credited two “shout outs” by local radio station KZST with helping to draw patrons to the restaurant during slow times in the weeks after the fires.
However, more common were retailers reporting a drop in customers. Among them is Luigi’s, which sits across the parking lot from Mel’s. Its once-healthy dinner business has taken a decided dip.
“At night here, it’s dead,” said Rafael Guzman, Luigi’s manager.
Waitress Erin Beaumont said some regular customers still come in from as far away as Cloverdale and Petaluma. Even so, she hopes the coming rebuild of Coffey Park will bring construction workers to Luigi’s and other eateries.
“Once they start building, we’ll get some business. But it’s not happening fast enough,” said Beaumont, who lost her Coffey Park home in the fire and now commutes to work from Cazadero.
In terms of economic impact, Sonoma County should rebound well from the impact of the fires, Sonoma State University economics professor Robert Eyler told business leaders Friday. However, he later acknowledged a “big question mark” remains for the stores and restaurants near Coffey Park as they wait for property owners to rebuild their homes.
“Those businesses have lined themselves up against those neighborhoods that now no longer exist,” he said.
Besides the mixed financial results, business owners and staff noted the fires caused customers to congregate and share their stories at pubs and eateries.
“We were really strong that last three months of the year,” said Andrew Klein, who with his wife, Shannon, owns West Side Grill on Marlow Road. “A lot of people wanted to talk about it and be around people they knew.”
However, listening to the stories of those who lost their homes often proved emotionally taxing.
“It’s just brutal,” said Kevin Robinson, owner of Plow Brewing on Industrial Drive. “Your heart goes out to them. You want to help, but you can’t.”
Businesspeople also reported ways the fires have exacerbated existing problems, not only for them but for a range of companies beyond northwest Santa Rosa.
Brian Hunt, founder and brewmaster at Moonlight Brewing on Coffey Lane, said he has started writing in job notices, “If you don’t live within commuting distance, don’t apply for this job.” He said the housing market has gotten so tight after the fires that outside workers eventually find they aren’t able to stay because “there’s just no place to live.”
Also, Hunt said, he wants this year to undertake improvements at the brewery, but some of the recent bids for asphalt or concrete work are “phenomenally high.”
He attributed those eye-opening numbers partly to the competition for contractors by residents and businesses who want to rebuild after the fire.
Even so, Hunt is looking forward to the recovery of Coffey Park and to the days when neighbors once more stroll over a few blocks from their homes to hoist a glass of his flagship Death & Taxes black lager.
Thinking about his old customer mix, he said, “Half of our tasting room were locals. And a lot of them don’t live here anymore.”
You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 707-521-5285 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @rdigit.