INSIDE LOOK: Recovery & Remembrance from Devastating Wildfires

On this edition of Inside Look. It was the deadliest week of wildfires in California’s history.

We go back to some of the hardest hit neighborhoods and show you signs of hope already rising from the ashes.

We hear from residents who are lining up to take the next steps toward rebuilding.

We talk with the state’s top emergency manager about the recovery process.

And, we never forget.

[SHOW BEGINS] I’m Brian May, thanks for joining us. It was the deadliest week in California wildfire history. 8900 structures burned. 43 people dead and now begins a time of healing. A time of recovery. A time to rebuild.

[Music bagpipes] On Saturday of this past week a day of remembrance was held at Santa Rosa Junior College. The program included a moving bell ceremony. One toll for each of the lives lost and it included first-hand accounts of what it was like for the first responders there that night.

This event giving residents of Sonoma County a chance to meet face to face with those first responders, to say thanks, offer handshakes and hugs.

[Sonoma Sheriff Robert Giordano] “Overwhelming support. Just amazing. I mean I have stories I can’t even… I’ve heard like three of them I’ve heard 3% of the stories and I could talk for hours about the things the neighbor that rescued the neighbor the neighbor that carried their neighbor out. The neighbor that got the neighbors horses out. You know, it’s just endless the kind of work that was done to protect people here and it shows when you look at how many lives were saved.”

[Fire Chief] “So Rob brought up dispatch. I’m gonna share a one little story they are the unsung heroes. So they’re they’re sending us to calls for service, and I’ll tell you when they’re on the phone and they got someone on the other line saying ‘there is fire everywhere and I can’t get out’ they say we’re gonna get somebody to you. And, when they hear on the other line that we can’t get to them, those dispatchers stay on the line with everyone until the line goes silent.” [voice breaking with emotion]

[Bryan May] One of the neighborhoods hardest hit by the fires was Coffey Park in Santa Rosa. Overnight almost the entire neighborhood gone. Don Millerick has lived in Coffey Park for 41 years, but on the Saturday we met him, he had come back to salvage what was left of the two vintage cars that were in his garage when the fire just ripped through his house and the 40 year old redwoods that once stood proud in his backyard.

Millerick, like many of his neighbors, said after discussing his debris removal options with his insurance agent he knew that signing the Right of Entry form was the way to go.

[Don Millerick] “I think I’m gonna, yeah, pretty sure, yeah I talked to the insurance guy and he said there was an X number of dollars in my policy for cleaning up and he said that sounds like a bargain to him. Yeah, so that’s probably the way to go right now. I’m just relieved that I got the few things that I wanted out of here and I know now it’s probably gonna take, you know, looks like it’ll be weeks before you see an awful lot of activity out here. But I know the hazmat guys have already started and that’s a mandatory operation right.”

[Bryan May] There are two phases to the cleanup of property. The first phase, the removal of household hazardous waste. Items like propane tanks, pesticides, paint.

The second phase is the actual debris removal, and the only way that process can start, if you opt to have the state do it for you, is to sign the Right of Entry form.

Cleanup crews have been mobilized and are ready to go, but the first step begins with a signed Right of Entry form.

[Mark Ghilarducci] “It’s really important that the sooner we can get the debris cleared from these lots, the faster we can begin the recovery process within the community. People can feel like they’re beginning the recovery process. There is action taking place moving forward. 

And look, we know winter’s coming. This is the biggest disaster in loss of structures in totality that we have seen in in recent times and there’s no time to sort of dilly-dally on this. We need to work very decisively, and we need to move rapidly to get our community back up.

What our goal is to address the needs of the people that have lost. Make sure our local communities rebound and the economy gets back operational. And, that we rebuild in a positive, safe and secure manner.”

[Bryan May] We know that many of you still have questions about those right of entry forms. So here to shed some light on what they are, and where to get those questions answered, here’s Shawn Boyd.

[Shawn Boyd] About a hundred people a day make their way to the “ROE Center” here at 625 Fifth Street in Santa Rosa. It is the first big step that they need to take to get their homes rebuilt and their lives back to normal. [sounds of debris sifting] The stress of losing one’s home only starts with the rubble left behind. Survivors’ resilience is now being tested by the long and arduous task of rebuilding their lives.

[John McCall] “It’s actually been my job mission over the last two weeks is to figure this whole thing out.”

[Shawn Boyd] That’s why a right of entry center, like this one, has been established in each of the counties affected by the October wildfires. “Right of Entry,” or ROE, is a form that, once completed and signed by the homeowner, allows contractors onto their property to remove all that fire debris and clean the land of any toxics.

With that form comes a lot of questions and that’s the reason for the centers.

[Ruth O’Connor] “The hardest part was finding it. Once we found it, it was… Went in had a five minute wait until somebody put us behind a computer. The guy was just helpful…”

[Shawn Boyd] Like Ruth O’Connor from Larkfield, everyone here is a wild fire victim. But they each have a unique situation.

Eric Pearson of Glen Ellyn is the anchor tenant for a ranch that lost four homes.

[Eric Pearson] “Sure. Four houses can get cleaned up pretty easily they’re 1,500 square feet each but we’ve got 50,000 square foot of barn with old chemicals and toxic and that needs to be cleaned up too.”

[Shawn Boyd] Other property owners were hit more than once. John McCall has multiple properties all over Sonoma County that burned to the ground. He’s got his signed ROE form firmly in hand.

[Shawn Asks a Question] So initially did you have any reservations about about signing one of those?

[John McCall] “Well, I’m an attorney so I looked it over and not really…”

[Shawn Boyd] But many do have reservations, and by coming to the ROE Center, questions are answered.

[Shawn Asks a Question] Did they answer all of your questions?

[Ruth O’Connor] “Yes he did. He was very knowledgeable. It wasn’t his first rodeo.”

[Shawn Boyd] And those that can’t be answered immediately will be researched by staff and then relayed to the property owner by phone. This Center is open seven days a week, nine to six, but they won’t be here forever time is ticking.

[Sonoma County Official] “This process is going to be coming to an end, and so we do need them to start making those decisions quickly. So if they have questions, come down and talk to us.”

[Shawn Boyd] Ruth left the ROE Center with a smile on her face. Her future can now begin.

[Ruth O’Conner] “We’ll start rebuilding process and start all over again.”

[Shawn Boyd] So we can’t stress enough the importance of coming down to the ROE Center. Not only to get that form, get it filled out and turned in, but also to answer any of those questions you may have. A lot of the questions that are out there are happening because the information is changing so quickly. Well these folks here are updated continuously, so they have that real-time information – those answers that you’re looking for. Back to you.

[Bryan May] Shawn, thank you. The path of destruction for these wildfires spared nothing that includes hundreds of schools that were affected either by fire damage, smoke damage, or in many cases, it just wasn’t safe for students and staff to get there. But that is not the case today. Jonathan Gudel was part of a school’s task force at Cal OES. He has an update.

[Jonathan Gudel] Thanks Brian. Students in Sonoma County were out of school for weeks. It wasn’t because of a holiday break and certainly not because of the reasons they would prefer. Not even the place where kids come to learn to play with their friends was spared from devastating wildfires that ravaged Northern California communities. Thousands of students were impacted and hundreds of schools were closed.

[Juan Mireles, California Department of Education] “Unfortunately, there were a lot of schools affected. not just the schools but the students the parents of teachers the community. At its peak, there were approximately 650 schools that were closed affecting about 290 thousand students.”

[Jonathan Gudel] Coordination from state local and federal partners worked quickly to put students back on campus – either at their previous school or an alternate site.

[Juan Mireles, California Department of Education] “There’s still concerns. Once again, opening the schools that remain closed and being able to clean a debris and reconstruct so that they can open up those schools again.”

[Jonathan Gudel] All students are now back in school.

[Bryan May] By the time the October wildfires were contained they had burned over eight thousand nine hundred structures across multiple counties. But recovery is already underway. With more on that, here’s Monica Vargas.

[Monica Vargas] California is on its way to recovery. Helping all whose lives are changed by the fires remains a top priority for the state. Agencies continue to work around the clock to help these community begin rebuilding and progress is being made. So what does recovery look like?

Let’s take a look at assistance centers. Sonoma County has a Local Assistance Center, Disaster Recovery Center and Business Recovery Center available. Napa County has a Local Assistance Center. Mendocino County has a Disaster Recovery Center. Lake County, Disaster Recovery Center. Yuba County, Disaster Recovery Center and that one is also serving Butte and Nevada counties. Nevada County also has a Disaster Loan Outreach Center as does Butte County.

All together, almost 15,000 households have been served by these current centers. When it comes to cleanup efforts, household hazardous waste cleanup has begun in Sonoma County. 3091 parcels have been completed. Napa 309. Mendocino 160. Lake 143 which is all of them. Yuba 173. Nevada all 39 are completed.

The figures are encouraging and the numbers will continue to grow. For resource center locations, dates and times, or for any other questions you may have go to wildfire recovery dot org. Stay tuned for more updates as we keep moving forward on the road to recovery. Bryan?

[Bryan May] Monica, thank you. And one last reminder – If you live in one of the areas affected by the wildfires, visit your Local Assistance Centers. They’re there to answer the questions that you may have. Also monitor your local county agencies. They’ve got great information. And, we’ve put together all the counties on our website. It is

We leave you now with some of the lasting images over the last 30 days.

[Music and News Reporter Talking] “…this fire has crossed the highway several times in the last couple hours.”

[music] [Sonoma Sheriff Robert Giordano] “People ran from their homes in the middle of the night while their cars were on fire so many people made it through this and were saved and rescued and got out.”

[music] [Don Millerick pointing to his burned lot] “…that was all engulfed over there and it was coming this way.”

[music] [Sonoma Sheriff Robert Giordano] “…we lost lives in this and thousands lost their homes. People lost their family members. They lost their friends.”

[Speaker at podium] “We are a community of heroes after this experience.”

[Bill Withers – ‘Lean on Me’ song by Choir] “…lean on me, when you’re not strong, I’ll be your friend… I’ll help you carry on.”

[Mark Ghilarducci] “You are not alone. We will recover. We will rebuild. And, we will come back stronger together.”

[music continues to play] [Choir] “…call me. call me… Call me.”

[Cheering and clapping with appreciation – END OF SHOW]

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Kelly Huston

Kelly is a Deputy Director of the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES). He leads a team of communications professionals working daily on a wide range of public safety issues including disaster mitigation, response and recovery.

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