Devastating wildfires redefine North Bay business in 2017 and beyond

Wildfire. That one word sums up the biggest business story of 2017, and of the past century. No other event caused so much disruption to North Bay business since the earthquake of 1906 toppled the Old Courthouse and City Hall in the center of Santa Rosa along with many other buildings.

The 2017 fire killed 24 people in Sonoma County and 44 in the North Bay. The '06 quake killed about 77 people in Santa Rosa, according to historical accounts.

Sonoma County lost more than 5,000 homes, with about 3,000 of those in Santa Rosa while Napa County home loss was put at about 500.

In early December, the state Department of Insurance detailed insurance claims at that point from the fires. Claims from Sonoma County totaled $7.5 billion including $6.9 billion in losses for residential property. There were 4,785 county policyholder claims filed for total loss of property, while another 9,901 filed for partial losses or smoke damage. In Napa County, claims totaled $1.2 billion with 447 claims for total loss of property and 2,023 for partial loss.

After a flurry of activity by insurance companies to cover insured losses, rebuilding in the years ahead will involve dozens of developers, and hundreds of contractors and construction workers. The region may need an estimated 6,300 additional construction workers annually to meet the rebuilding need.

Attorneys scrambled to find liability, and some filed lawsuits against PG&E, alleging that failure to maintain power lines may have caused some of the fires.

Napa County suffered from wildfires, though business damage was limited primarily to winery structures. Hundreds of homes were lost.

Santa Rosa's Fountaingrove business district took the biggest hit when the Tubbs Fire started north of Calistoga then swept west over the hills in the early hours of Oct. 9, propelled by high winds. Fire leveled iconic businesses, including Fountaingrove Inn, Equus restaurant and Hilton Sonoma Wine Country Hotel. Keysight Technologies, its headquarters and campus perched high on Fountaingrove Parkway, lost two modular buildings and a school. Firefighters jumped onto the roof of the headquarters located just a few yards from the destroyed structures and saved it. Three other main buildings also escaped devastation.

The blaze's ferocity astounded firefighters as it leaped over six lanes of Highway 101 and tore through Kmart and Trader Joe's stores, destroying or damaging other businesses nearby as it raced into Coffey Park residential development and obliterated nearly 1,200 homes.

More than two dozen businesses had flames destroy part or all of their structures, but business disruption was far broader. Companies throughout Fountaingrove district remained closed for nearly a month as contractors worked to restore Internet, phone and electricity systems, and cleaned ducts and air-processing units fouled by smoke that lingered long after flames went out.

Basin Street Properties, which owns Fountaingrove Center, saw its five large structures survive fire but take significant hits from smoke damage. The developer's buildings house offices of Kaiser Permanente, Moss Adams, Redwood Trust Deed Services, Wells Fargo Private Bank and Advisors and Pisenti & Brinker accounting firm, along with many others.

North of Guerneville Road in Santa Rosa, dozens of businesses remained closed for days after the fire passed through as crews from PG&E, Comcast and Sonic worked to restore power and broadband service.

Barely two months after North Bay wildfires, southern California erupted in flames with the Thomas Fire in Ventura County and others in Los Angeles and San Diego that destroyed hundreds of structures.

Looking ahead after the fires, many business leaders rallied to help fire victims. Redwood Credit Union jumped in with major fund-raising efforts in its North Bay Fire Relief Fund, as it did after the 2015 Valley Fire in Lake County. 'Our hearts go out to everyone affected by the fires,' said Brett Martinez, the credit union's CEO and president.

Exchange Bank, Bank of Marin and other community banks joined the recovery effort. Rebuild North Bay, a nonprofit formed to galvanize recovery efforts, hired former FEMA director James Lee Witt, who will help in 2018 to channel federal and state funds into the community.

'There will be a lot of areas where there will not be enough money to replace everything,' said Witt, who owned a construction company for about a dozen years before his public-service career.

'I'll be working with Cal OES and FEMA. And we'll look at SBA and HUD, making sure all funding streams will be available for those who need help,' Witt said.

The nonprofit was formed by leaders of Sonoma Media Investments, parent company of the Press Democrat and North Bay Business Journal.

It will be years before immediate damage from North Bay wildfires is repaired. Engineers and architects report that property owners who lost homes, particularly custom houses, seek new designs that resist wildfire. 'You can have all the walls be 100 percent fire-resistant,' said John Cook, senior principal of MKM & Associates Structural Engineers, based in Rohnert Park. The company designed many Coffey Park homes that burned. 'They would never burn,' Cook said, as long as windows and doors stay intact in a fire.

The Press Democrat contributed to this report.

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