Rebuilding Decisions to rebuild in Sonoma Valley complicated by Glass fire

Rebuilding Decisions to rebuild in Sonoma Valley complicated by Glass fire
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Jay Gamel wasn’t going to do it. But neighbor Fortino Soto was persistent: Gamel needed to fill the 1,200 gallon water tank that Soto had given him over the summer.

“I filled it up the day before the fire,” Gamel […]

Jay Gamel, standing in the ruins of his home, which was destroyed in the Glass fire, on Adobe Canyon Road in Kenwood on Wednesday, Dec. 23. (Robbi Pengelly / Index-Tribune)
Jay Gamel, standing downhill from the water tank that burst and saved his garage during Glass fire on Canyon Road in Kenwood on Wednesday, Dec. 23. (Robbi Pengelly / Index-Tribune)
Jay Gamel, longtime publisher and editor of the Kenwood Press photographs the remains of a house he owned for nearly 50 years on Adobe Canyon Road when the Glass fire raged through the area near Sugarloaf State park.  (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

Jay Gamel wasn’t going to do it. But neighbor Fortino Soto was persistent: Gamel needed to fill the 1,200 gallon water tank that Soto had given him over the summer.

“I filled it up the day before the fire,” Gamel said.

The following night, flames invaded the Sonoma Valley once again. The Glass fire, which broke out last September on the eastern rim of the Napa Valley, jumped over the valley floor and blazed a path west over the Mayacamas into Sonoma County.

The fire blew out the new water storage tank at Gamel’s home outside Kenwood, sending water rushing down the hill. It extinguished a burning Douglas fir tree that had fallen, clipping the corner of the studio garage where Gamel lived and sending flames straight toward the garage, he said.

“All my personal stuff was in that garage,” including his black cat, Captain Midnight, who had refused to leave when Gamel evacuated before the fire hit his Adobe Canyon Road property in Kenwood on Sept. 28.

While the studio garage where Gamel lived survived, the adjacent home, including a kitchen and bathroom that Gamel shared with his renters, was destroyed.

The house sat up high, out of sight from the road, with a great view of Bald Mountain. He converted the garage into a studio and installed giant windows across the front, where Gamel enjoyed watching the wildlife pass by. He chuckles recalling the time he heard knocking on those windows and found a tom turkey pecking at his own reflection, seemingly protecting the harem of lady turkeys surrounding him.

Gamel was raised all over the world, “a military brat,” he said. But when he visited Kenwood he knew he found his real home. When he drove up Adobe Canyon Road he said “I’m going to live there the rest of my life.”

But now he’s not so sure about rebuilding.

Though the studio survived, even when it is remediated for smoke, it doesn’t have a bathroom or kitchen. He doesn’t think the county will let him add those functions to the structure.

At 76, he does not want to wait “four years” to rebuild the house, and if he did rebuild a house there it would be small and he doesn’t think it would be appealing to anyone for resale.

He knew the property location and the old trees on the lot — the things that drew him to it — are also dangers. A fire chief told him long ago the hairpin turn to get to the house would make it nearly impossible to get a fire engine up there.

“He said if your house catches fire, there’s nothing we can do about it,” Gamel said. “I knew that. I thoroughly understood that.”

Still, firefighters did save the house in 2017, though they likely were on foot. Gamel said he waited too long to leave the property during the 2017 wildfires and heeded warnings earlier this year.

“Flames were licking my arms” in 2017 as he escaped flames, he said.

But he still grapples with PTSD from the fire. He doesn’t know if he can live there again.

“I’m scared of it. The scars aren’t going to go away any time soon,” he said.

Rebuilding by the numbers

Gamel isn’t alone in facing some difficult decisions about whether to rebuild. The Glass fire destroyed nine homes in Kenwood, and burned some 43 structures.

“Those properties affected by the Glass fire are still in the hazardous waste cleanup and debris removal stage of the process,” said Domenica Giovannini, policy manager for Sonoma County.

Three years after the 2017 wildfires, only a quarter of the 407 homes destroyed in the Sonoma Valley have been rebuilt. County officials said 100 homes have been rebuilt and another 114 are in the process of rebuilding.

According to Permit Sonoma data, in Glen Ellen 53 properties have completed construction; 69 are in the construction phase; permits have been issued to eight; and 13 permits are in review. In Kenwood construction is complete on 42 properties; another 37 are under construction; nine permits are awaiting construction; and four permits are in the review process. Sonoma has five completed projects; eight are under construction; and there are two permits issued that are waiting for construction to begin.

Fire protection, preparedness tools continue in the Valley

Residents and public agencies across the Sonoma Valley took steps in 2020 to defend their homes and the broader region from future fires. They include:

Prescribed burns: Prescribed, or controlled burns, used for centuries by Native American people to manage land, took place in Sonoma Valley throughout the fall. The most recent burn in Sonoma Valley was on Dec. 11 at Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen.

Vegetation management: Sonoma Valley residents were offered another vegetation management tool during the fourth quarter of 2020 with a residential chipping program. To request service, download the SoCo Report It app on your smartphone and click on the Residential Curbside Chipping section. The county will chip vegetation removed by the homeowner for up to two hours with no charge. Jobs longer than two hours may be the responsibility of the property owner.

Drone: The Sonoma Valley Fire District has acquired a drone, a new tool that will help incident commanders assess dangerous situations. The visual and infrared capabilities of the unmanned aircraft will allow the fire department to analyze situations and deploy resources more effectively.

The department conducted a training at the Sonoma Development Center on Dec. 10 and 11. It has two FAA-certified pilots and four more members preparing for the exams, said Trevor Smith, fire marshal.

The drone will be useful in remote, unpopulated wildfire-prone areas that are difficult or impossible to reach by vehicle and take a long time to reach on foot through often treacherous terrain. With the bird’s-eye view from a drone, firefighters will be able to see specifically where they need to go and better understand a fire’s behavior.

Financial support: A half-million dollar grant from The Wonderful Company was given to organizations that support local programs providing services and resources to people affected by wildfires and coronavirus. The grant recipients are located in Sonoma and San Luis Obispo counties and include local nonprofits such as Boys & Girls Clubs of Sonoma Valley, La Luz Center, Redwood Empire Food Bank, Sonoma Valley Vintners & Growers Association and Valley of the Moon Children's Home Foundation.

Line inspections: PG&E continues to inspect electric transmission lines to harden its systems and manage vegetation by utilizing drones and helicopters.

Fire debris removal: The State of California’s Office of Emergency Services extended the deadline to Jan. 15, 2021, for Glass fire survivors to apply for the State of California’s consolidated fire debris removal program. The program is open to those whose properties were destroyed in fires and to property owners with fire-impacted trees in danger of falling on public roads and infrastructure.

You can reach Sonoma Index-Tribune Reporter Anne Ward Ernst at [email protected]