Homeowners, vintners in Mendocino's Redwood Valley rebuild after wildfire

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Resources

County of Mendocino page on rebuilding after the wildfires: www.mendocinocounty.org/community/fire-recovery/rebuilding

Read more about the recovery from the North Bay wildfires: nbbj.news/recovery

Compared with more than 5,000 homes lost in Santa Rosa from the October wildfires, the more than 380 destroyed in Mendocino County in a separate but simultaneous firestorm seems small.

Yet it was almost one-quarter of the housing in the rural Redwood and Potter valleys.

More than 36,000 acres of the county burned in the blaze, which started late Oct. 8. Nine months later, 312 of the about 400 burned sites in Mendocino County have been cleared of debris and turned back over the property owners, according to county CEO Carmel Angelo. The rest have been cleared of debris, but county paperwork still needs to be finalized.

So far, 77 rebuild permits have been issued, and another 12 are under review. Of those, 41 are for manufactured homes, and the rest are standard construction.

“That’s pretty good that we have that many building permits so far,” she said.

Of the issued permits, six homes have been finished, four of which are manufactured dwellings.

RETURN OF A HARD-HIT NEIGHBORHOOD

One of the Redwood Valley homes in the home stretch of rebuilding belongs to George and Nancy Borecky. They have lived on the Tomki Road property for 43 years and had just finished remodeling their home before the fire.

Early on Oct. 9, the Boreckys were awakened by something they don’t recall. They had less than 15 minutes to flee with themselves and their dogs. Blasting the vehicle’s air horn to alert their neighbors, they sped through flames and smoke so thick they could barely see the markings on Tomki Road as they headed south.

Theirs was one of 44 lots that burned in the Mountain River Ranch subdivision, which also includes Fisher Lake Drive, where 18 homes were destroyed and two people died.

Like neighbors who have their homes under construction, the Boreckys are living in their motor coach on the property as Cupples & Sons Construction of Ukiah completes the exterior of the home.

One of the four homes on Fisher Lake Drive that started to rise from the ground again is a 1,500-square-foot house for Steve and Katrena Dursteler. It’s a totally different floorplan from the 2,300-square-foot house they had lived in for 14 years before the fire. They had revamped their back yard just two weeks before the fire.

“We could not afford to rebuild what we had, because of the cost of materials has increased so much,” Katrena Dursteler said, sitting in their new travel trailer at the property while the air-conditioner strained on the 100-degree day.

Unlike the Boreckys, who had their RV prepped to leave for a planned trip to Oregon the same week of the firestorm, the Durstelers lost dogs and their travel trailer while running from house to house to alert the neighborhood. A neighbor’s call at 1 a.m. had rousted them out of sleep.

While their USAA insurance policy paid out to the limits on the structure, the Durstelers said they could only get 75 percent for contents without itemizing what was lost.

REBUILD RESET: OVEREXCAVATION

Work on the Boreckys’ lot started in January, first by crews the Army Corps of Engineers hired to clean the site of contaminants left by the incineration of their home. But 127 of the Mendocino County sites in need of cleanup were overexcavated, according to Angelo, the Mendocino County CEO. State officials came in to look at the sites and found 82 were eligible for covering the cost of backfilling the holes where the homes once stood and compacting the new material.

Resources

County of Mendocino page on rebuilding after the wildfires: www.mendocinocounty.org/community/fire-recovery/rebuilding

Read more about the recovery from the North Bay wildfires: nbbj.news/recovery

“If we were to do the debris project again, we would have the state and federal governments pay as they did, but it might be better for everyone if it might be possible to have the recovery efforts done locally,” she said.

The Boreckys’ home site was among those that needed the most backfill, up to 5 feet deep, at a cost of $15,000 for materials and experts such as their own contractor and soils engineer. The Durstelers said they paid $17,000 to get their property fixed.

The Boreckys had that extra cost covered by their home policy, according to Jared Hull, their Ukiah-based Farmers Insurance agent. The carrier offers 10 percent of the value of the home to cover building-code updates, such as what are required before plans for the original house can be approved for permits.

On hearing the reports of the firestorm damage, Hull said he raced to the office at 6:30 a.m. and started calling clients who lived in Redwood and Potter valleys. He had authorized the wiring of up to $15,000 in living expenses to the Boreckys by the following morning.

The company ended up with 70 total-loss home claims in Redwood Valley. Insurance claims from Mendocino County topped $183 million, according to a Dec. 1 report from the state Department of Insurance.

Hull's office also paid out a number of $500 allowances for evacuees. Within a couple of weeks of the start of the fire, the carrier approved 100 percent coverage of personal property without questions.

"Most don't have as much coverage as they needed," Hull said. "It made us look good in this small town."

After the Borecky home site was declared cleaned, it took three weeks to get permits to rebuild. Cupples & Sons started work on the foundation of the couple’s new home in April, and the interior wallboards were finished by mid-July. The goal is to get the county certificate of occupancy by mid-September, George Borecky said.

Across Fisher Lake Drive from the Durstelers, Art and Denise Barclay were awaiting Pinnacle Built Construction to resume work on their rebuilt home. The walls are framed, but the roof trusses are on backorder.

“One thing we’ve heard from our builder is patience,” said Denise Barclay. A shortage of labor is one issue that has been cited, she said.

Construction started in May and is set to be done around the anniversary of the fire. She said it has been a tragic 12 months, first with the fire then with the death of son-in-law Tim Gillaspie in a brazen shooting in Santa Rosa’s Rincon Valley neighborhood. And more sadness is coming from neighbors who won’t return because of the fires.

“A lot of people have not decided whether they will rebuild,” Denise Barclay said.

Neighbors next door moved to Oregon to live with their daughter. Roy and Irma Bowman, 87 and 88, respectively, died the night of the fire.

The Boreckys have been able to expand their property because of the departures. George, a retired Ukiah city employee, and Nancy, a current real estate agent, purchased an adjacent property and are preparing it for landscaping.

“We do a lot of entertaining,” George Borecky said.

UKIAH CONTRACTOR LINES UP SANTA ROSA REBUILDS

The Barclay home is Cupples's third Redwood Valley rebuild, according to foreman Casey Cupples.

"We haven't had a lot of trouble; inspectors have been really fair up there," he said. "Hardest thing is for owners to get the plan they want approved by the county or a city."

That's why after the Barclays' house, Cupples & Sons is headed for north Santa Rosa, where the seven-employee business has three rebuilds lined up. One is for an employee at Devincenzi Concrete Construction in Larkfield, and that company is set to get started on the foundation this week. Another is for a friend of that employee's family.

Casey Cupples's father, Rick, started the company in 1977. Originally a homebuilder, it turned to commercial projects in 1998 and has specialized in school projects in recent years. Cupples works with aspects of the project from concrete to electrical and plumbing, stopping short of roofing and duct work. A relative runs Cupples Excavation and can provide site work.

"We got back into homes because of the fires," Casey Cupples said.

HOMEOWNERS SEEK HELP WITH REBUILD PROCESS

While Mendocino County’s building and planning departments offer information online and in print about the rebuilding process and resources, several residents of the Mountain River Ranch subdivision who are in the midst of rebuilding said they wished the steps necessary were more clearly defined.

“There is no simple system in place to do things at the county building department,” said Steve Dursteler. “We need one packet that tells us who to contact and when.”

After trying to manage the rebuild in between Katrena Dursteler’s work as a local teacher, the couple had help from a good friend who is a construction consultant and had worked for the county of Mendocino and city of Healdsburg.

“He pushed us to get going,” she said. “We were the first to get a permit and get our foundation in.”

Then the Dursteler’s rebuild was delayed because their lender called for information after the new foundation was built in March.

The Mendocino County CEO said the Redwood Fire did show that local, state and federal agencies can work cooperate on a monumental task of battling the blaze and revving up the recovery.

“We’re so used to criticizing government, but we can work together,” Angelo said. “Though Mendocino County is a fairly small government, I think our planning department has done great at getting people back to rebuild.”

REBUILD WRINKLE: WATER FOR FIRE SPRINKLERS

One of the remaining rebuild challenges in Redwood Valley is upgrading the diameter of water pipes to satisfy the latest California building codes, which require fire sprinklers on homes in certain wildfire zones, Angelo said. The Redwood Valley County Water District serves 187 homes that were destroyed in the blaze, and the estimated cost of upgrading the lines is $7 million. The recent state budget included $2 million for the replacement, with the rest coming from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

If the plans and funding are approved, phase 1 of the three-year project could start this fall, according to Darcie Antle, a county employee who has been managing the project budget.

The line serving the Borecky property is big enough to supply the sprinklers, part of the home’s fire-resistant upgrades that include special vents that keep embers out of the attics and crawlspaces and siding that’s difficult to burn, George Borecky said.

However, the lines serving Fisher Lake Drive aren’t big enough, the owners said.

“I can’t speak to specific details, but there are temporary workarounds for folks in those areas,” Antle said. Those include drilling wells or installing water tanks to supply the sprinklers.

VINTNER PREPS FOR HARVEST AS NEW WINERY PROJECT SET TO START

One of the two wineries to go up in the Redwood Fire was Frey Vineyards’s main property on Tomki Road.

But early rebuild plans for a new winery by this harvest, set to start with chardonnay and pinot noir the second week of September, won’t happen, according to Katrina Frey.

“We’re putting expensive Band-Aids on the old property to get it up and running,” she said. “We probably will be moved into the new winery by Christmastime.”

Permitting may be done to allow for breaking ground on the new winery next month, Frey said. But what likely will be operational by harvest will be the new winery’s BO Filtro worm-based wastewater-treatment system, modeled after a much larger one at Fezter Vineyard’s winery in Hopland. R.M. Construction is building the winery, designed by LACO Associates.

While paper files and mementos of yesteryear were lost in the blaze, Frey Vineyards continues to function, thanks to its QuickBooks financial data being cloud-based. A family member also saved a local data backup drive before escaping the flames.

However, the homes of 19 employees didn’t survive, and much of the 2017 cabernet sauvignon crop, harvested after the fires started, had to be sold for vinegar because of smoke taint, Frey said.

“It was quite a huge loss,” she said.

Contact Jeff Quackenbush at jquackenbush@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4256.

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