Q&A with James Lee Witt, leader of North Bay fire-recovery group Project: Rebuild

Christopher Chung/Press Democrat Former FEMA director James Lee Witt, right, speaks with Julianna Gudino after the Rebuild NorthBay community meeting at SSU, in Rohnert Park on Wednesday, Oct. 25.


James Lee Witt, director of FEMA for eight years, is executive director of Rebuild North Bay, a tax-exempt 501(c)(4) social-welfare group created to advocate and lobby as the region recovers from wildfires that swept through Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties in October.

Donations to a 501(c)(4) can be unlimited and undisclosed. Total losses in the fires are estimated at $7.4 billion.

North Bay Business Journal interviewed Witt, who is based in Little Rock, on Nov. 6. He will speak at a conference in Santa Rosa on Thursday, Nov. 16.

Did you have a chance to tour some of the burned areas?

Yes. We toured pretty much all of it in Sonoma and Napa counties.

You went up Fountaingrove Parkway in Santa Rosa?


In your time at FEMA or as the OES director for Arkansas, did you ever see a fire this bad?

Not this bad, no. I was at the Malibu fire (Old Topanga Fire, 1993, $500 million damage), the Laguna Beach fire (1993, 16,000 acres, 400 homes lost, $528 million damage). I have never seen one this large and intense.

The intensity is what astounded me on Fountaingrove. Did you see burn areas where aluminum melted (1,200 degrees Fahrenheit)?

When the rim of a car melts, that’s pretty intense. It’s very fortunate that more people didn’t lose their lives.

Thousands of people got out of their homes in time to survive. We could have lost hundreds of lives if deputies had not gone house to house alerting people?


You were a buddy of Bill Clinton?

I was coaching a Little League team and he was running for Congress. He came down to a ball game and introduced himself. He was 27 years old (now 71. Witt is 73.)

When he was governor of Arkansas, he appointed you as head of the Office of Emergency Management?

Yes. I was a county judge for 10 years. His staff (member) called me and said the governor wants you down here this afternoon. I said I was really busy. She said, no, I didn’t understand. He wanted me down there. (He was appointed to run emergency services for the state). I was there four and a half years and we had three disasters.

Those were floods?

Floods and tornadoes. One was in Hot Springs (1990, 13 inches of rain in 24 hours,) He called me and said the water was up to his mama’s porch — what should she do. I said, get out. It was up about four feet in downtown Hot Springs.

Clinton (as president) appointed you FEMA director in 1993, and you served eight years. You handled about 350 disasters. How many of those were fires?

I don’t remember. Most of the fires we dealt with were in California and Idaho.

You started a couple of years after the Oakland hills fire in 1991?

Yes. I was in Oakland when Governor (Jerry) Brown was mayor. I have a good relationship with him. I met with folks in that fire and looked at how they built back, with more resiliency, more fire-resistant roofing, siding and landscaping. They put a box on the corner of every block with a radio and flashlight. Whoever got to the box first was the block captain in case something happened. They did a good job rebuilding.

Those elements of rebuilding should be done here in Sonoma and Napa counties?

Yes. There’s an opportunity to build back better, with more resiliency for the future. In the Laguna Beach fire, Governor Wilson and I were up there. One house survived that fire. He (the owner) was still living in it. I asked him what he did. He used clay-tile shingles on his roof. The overhangs were four feet. In a wildfire, the flames come down and the overhang pushed them out away from the house. He used fire-resistant siding and kept fire-resistant shrubbery low and away from the house.

If the fire comes over the roof, the overhang shoves the fire away from the wall?

Yes. It worked perfectly. In years after that, after the rainy season they hired a guy with goats. They would put an electric fence up and move that pen acre by acre to keep the underbrush down.

The sides of his house were not concrete, but fire-resistant siding? What is that made of?

Masonite (hardboard made of steamed and pressure-molded wood fiber, slower combustion than wood due to density and removal of oil, turpentine and other flammables in wood). It’s harder, more fire-resistant.

Stucco would be even better?

Yes. There is a lot of material out there that is fire-resistant. People should explore that. It’s a great opportunity to build better.

In Coffey Park and especially Fountaingrove neighborhoods, which had beautiful views, houses were packed very close, mostly wooden construction. Fire spread rapidly from house to house because of that?

Yes. On that mountain (Fountaingrove), we were up there with the builder and engineer (Carlile-Macy) who had built that whole area. Their big concern there is the rainy season coming, having it wash so much soil into creeks.

Erosion after a fire is a serious problem, especially if it rains hard and long?

Yes. I gave Mark Ghilarducci, head of Cal OES, the name of a company in California that applies seeding and mulch in those areas. (Science on post-fire mulching is inconclusive; seeding is generally discouraged.)

Your role here in Project: Rebuild will be primarily focused on residential reconstruction or on businesses burned in the fires?

We have meetings set up with counties and cities. We will work with FEMA on temporary housing and with Cal OES. There will be a lot of areas where there will not be enough money to replace everything. I will be doing advisory work for them, whether they need a short-term or long-term redevelopment plan. If the nonprofit can fill voids where funding is not available, it would help homeowners and small businesses rebuild much faster.

You had a career as a builder before you became an administrative judge?

Yes. I started a company when I was 21, residential and commercial (building). I did that for 12 years.

In those years, how many houses did you build?

In one year we did 225. We usually had five or six houses going at the same time.

Were those wood-frame houses?

Most of them were brick.

In a fire the magnitude of the Tubbs Fire, would a brick structure withstand the intensity, or would flames go through a window anyway?

The brick would be better than wood. Now you can get windows that are fire-resistant as well.

It’s double-pane with tempered glass that has a higher melting temperature?

Yes. Double-pane. Most of them are tempered. There have been many studies on fire safety, what materials to use to build back better. We’ll pull up some of that research.

How much of your time will be spent here?

I’ll be out there a lot — two to three weeks a month.

You’ll be based in Santa Rosa?

I’m not sure yet. I think they have an office in Napa, Sonoma and Santa Rosa.

Who will be your main working partners?

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 to those who need help.

You took FEMA from an organization that managed fallout shelters during the Cold War and revamped it entirely?

I did. I totally reorganized it, refocused on customer service, more functional.

The idea was to create a military-type model of strike force, where teams can go in fast after a disaster to serve victims?

Yes. We had four rapid-response teams. They would go in and work with the state, set up a recovery operation, be there for two or three weeks. Then full-time people would go in. It worked extremely well.

In natural disasters, there are fires, hurricanes, tornadoes and floods. From your experience, what are the worst disasters in terms of affecting people’s lives?

The worst are floods and wildfires. A flood is like a wildfire. When everything you have is flooded and gone, it’s devastating. Fires are the same way.

Everything is ruined — personal belongings. In floods, there’s a subsequent phenomenon of mold?

Mold and mud. It’s just horrific. In 1993 we had the Mississippi flood ($15 billion in damages). It affected nine states.

That was one of the first disasters you dealt with as FEMA director?

Yes. We put in a buyout-relocation program. We used FEMA dollars and HUD dollars that the governors could allocate. In Missouri alone we bought out 4,000 pieces of property and relocated families.

In Pattonsburg, Missouri, we bought out the whole town (and moved it to higher ground). We took that property and put deed restrictions on it and turned it back to the city or county to make it into open green space.

Santa Rosa’s burned-out Coffey Park has hundreds of individual homeowners. Is the best route for recovery of that neighborhood not to have each property owner build his or her own home back, but buy them out as a group and organize that rebuilding?

I have looked at a map of the area. They have taken that area and blocked it into five districts. They are trying to get a master developer of each district to build out that plot. That would work extremely well. A lot of the builders who built those houses still have the plans.

But maybe we don’t want to rebuild in the same style. Maybe we should do it differently and not make it so vulnerable to fire?

Yes. And some of the people may not want to build back.

After losing all their possessions, they might want to move to another state, such as Arkansas?

(Chuckles. Leaders there) are concerned about losing their labor force and losing population. They’re going to have to be smart about how they do this. A temporary housing program can help save the labor force. We sent information to Mark Ghilarducci (Cal OES) about a company that turns used cargo containers into temporary housing.

They are large shipping containers fitted out with kitchens and bathrooms?

Yes. Some of them are two-bedroom, some one-bedroom. They can put two of them together and make a nice-sized living area. They have built Holiday Inns out of them, hotels, office buildings.

The structure itself is steel?


How many of those are available?

There are thousands.

Those units could be placed on land the county or city owns and provide temporary housing?

One company can make 200 a month. Another company, more. They’re already finished out and furnished.

They have beds, furniture, kitchen appliances?

Yes. They range from $10,000 to $29,000, depending on size. I would suggest they use them for temporary housing for workers or families. A temporary-housing program under FEMA might last for 18 months. At the end of those 18 months, depending on what the county wanted to do, they could sell them. People could move and make a cabin out of them. It might be cheaper to sell than to move them. Maybe sell them for $1 apiece.

For $1, people would end up with a new place to live?

Yes. You could do that with temporary housing. You can move them.

The containers are adapted so they’re fairly livable?

Absolutely. There’s an office building here in Little Rock built entirely out of cargo containers.

In the FEMA work you did over eight years, what was the closest disaster in terms of the number of people affected?

The Northridge earthquake (1994, 6.7 on Richter scale, San Fernando Valley, killed 57, injured 9,000) We spent about $20 billion on that disaster. Some of the floods we had to deal with were just huge.

What do you estimate the recovery of this fire disaster will cost?

Governor Brown this morning estimated it at over $7.4 billion, and is asking Congress for (that amount). It could go up.

In terms of a recovery time period, is that two years, five years, how far out?

I spoke with Mark Ghilarducci about debris removal. He set it up with the Corps. of Engineers, and is hoping to get it removed by sometime in December. A guy called me this morning about foundations, particularly on Fountaingrove. They wanted to take all the foundations out. They’re concerned if they take the foundations out up there, erosion is going to be so bad. It will be a mess.

Are there serious toxins that result from a wildfire of this scale?

In some cases, compressors on the air-conditioning units may have some toxicity. (Most) household chemicals, you don’t have to worry about. In some cases it can be dissipated with that much heat. Old refrigerators — anything with Freon or some type of toxic material in it. I’m not sure what the EPA is classifying as toxic.

Are you looking forward to taking yourself out of consulting status and becoming a much more active leader here?

I am. Sometimes you can help make a difference. Hopefully I can. I will look for areas where the nonprofit can fill voids — to make a difference for individuals and businesses in the community. Debris removal may be nearly 100 percent federal. Some of it is 75 (percent) federal and 25 (percent) state and local. Whether the counties and cities are able to cover that top share — that might be an area I want to explore.

James Dunn covers technology, biotech, law, the food industry, and banking and finance. Reach him at: james.dunn@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4257