Shared from the 4/15/2018 San Francisco Chronicle eEdition

Santa Rosa fire damage extends underground


Above: Hans Dippel and other Fountaingrove residents whose homes burned down in the Tubbs Fire are grappling with whether to rebuild or sell their empty lots.

Photos by Paul Chinn / The Chronicle

Right: Plastic pipe at the site of Dippel’s home. Heat from the fire melted pipes and leeched chemicals into the main water line.


At first, no one thought to check underground.

When the Tubbs Fire roared through Santa Rosa in October, torching more than 3,000 homes and displacing tens of thousands of residents, one of the hardest hit neighborhoods was Fountaingrove in the hills north of downtown. Residents who had fled for their lives returned to find 1,420 homes leveled amid a nearly unrecognizable landscape.

But deep underneath the mangled cul-de-sacs and ashy lots — and the homes that by some miracle stood through the inferno — another big problem loomed. The wildfire burned so hot that 5 miles of water lines serving 350 homes in the upscale enclave were destroyed.

Some sections of polyvinyl chloride pipe melted, leeching carcinogens into the system. And when the water pressure dropped, ash and chemicals from burnt-out homes were sucked back into the main lines, permanently contaminating them. The polluted zone covers 184 acres north and south of Fountaingrove Parkway around Fir Ridge Drive.

There is no fix, according to the city, which expects to need more than two years and $43 million to replace the entire system, if not more.

The loss of a big chunk of the neighborhood’s infrastructure is a vivid illustration of the enormity of the Tubbs Fire — and the profound challenge of recovering from it. The most destructive blaze in state history decimated not only entire blocks, but everything buried beneath them.

“To be blunt, a lot of what we are dealing with, no city has ever had to deal with before,” said Chris Rogers, Santa Rosa’s vice mayor, about the contaminated system. “Even during our research and talking with experts, there is not a large body of evidence or plans that have been developed to address something of this nature. We are building the plane as we fly it.”

As residents in this part of Fountaingrove grapple with whether to rebuild — and as many of them budget insurance dollars that cover rental units for a maximum of two years — they’re worried the water issues will delay construction and devalue their lot. Or, worse yet, cause an exodus and irreparably change the knitting of the community they spent decades building.

Already, “For sale” signs pepper the streets that snake past bare lots. There were four homes and 120 lots for sale in all of Fountaingrove as of Friday. Another two homes and 25 lots already have been sold. With no potable water, and no solution in sight, the future looks ever uncertain.

“We don’t know what is going to happen,” said Hans Dippel, 57, who lived on Chateau Court. “Before we found out about the water issue, people were planning to rebuild. We got our topography survey done, our soil tests and debris removal and insurance. Now, we are all putting stuff on hold until the city finds out more.”

* * *

The first calls to complain about taste and odor from Fountaingrove homes rang into the city’s water department in early November. By mid-January, officials had cordoned off the 184-acre swath — including 350 service lines, 210 valves and 70 fire hydrants — into an advisory zone.

Officials found benzene, a known carcinogen, in the lines. The contaminated water is so potentially dangerous that residents cannot shower in it, let alone drink it or brush their teeth with it.

The city adjusted utility bills and handed out bottled water to those left in the 13 standing homes within the zone. Now, no one lives there. More than 20 city employees continue to collect 175 samples a day. They’ve gathered more than 3,000, maxing out the capacity of Santa Rosa’s laboratory. The city has hired three commercial labs to help run a battery of tests on the water.

“I don’t mean we took a few water samples,” said Emma Walton, a water reuse engineer for the city. “We have taken thousands of water samples. We are nearly complete with sampling every burned and unburned home in the fire-impacted area. ... Everything we have found to date supports that this contamination is leeching from the plastics of our system.”

Hoping to avoid a complete rebuild, officials flushed 1.6 million gallons of clean water through the system. Then they tried forcing a foam device through the pipes to clean them. Neither maneuver worked. The particles are microscopic and sticky, binding to the pipe walls.

Some service lines — the smaller pipes that connect homes to the main water line — can be replaced. And they have been in more than 50 spots around Santa Rosa, including in ravaged Coffey Park and parts of Fountaingrove. But within the neighborhood’s red zone, it’s not enough.

Tim Anderson, 64, had a contaminated service line feeding his decimated lot in Fountaingrove. It’s an easy fix, he knows. He worked as a geophysicist at Sonoma County’s water agency for decades. Still, he is uncertain whether he and his wife will rebuild. They’ve been commuting between the community of Mark West, near her work, and Truckee, where their son has a home. All they want is stability.

“I’m getting old,” he said. “We are just anxious to settle down. We lived there for 22 years and had the same neighbors. I know most aren’t coming back, and those friendships will be broken. That’s the hardest part of it for us.”

If he and his wife wanted to rebuild, he said, “There’s no certain date as to when water service will be available. It’s pretty hard to pay hundreds of thousands to rebuild not knowing if you’ll have water or not.”

Officials don’t expect to have a timeline for people like Anderson for another two months. While studying how to replace the underground lines, they’re also looking to create a temporary water connection for residents who are rebuilding.

Twenty-three building permits have been issued in Fountaingrove, and another 18 are in the approval process. Thirteen homes are already going up. Ideally, reconstruction will parallel fixing the underground water network, officials say.

The city wants to expedite the process, but not at the risk of contaminating the new system, said Jennifer Burke, deputy director of the water department. She spoke to a group of angry residents at a Santa Rosa City Council meeting last month.

“Initially, we thought we could clear this up pretty quickly,” Burke said. “After we continued to re-sample, we realized this was a bit more than protocol. ... Based on all the research we’ve done, we’ve recognized that this is unprecedented. Others haven’t had an experience like this.”

* * *

What keeps Michael Yee up at night is the unknown. He, his wife and their 11-year-old daughter have moved six times since the wildfires hit, from one friend’s spare bedroom to another. Recently, they moved into a rental unit in Rincon Valley, just southeast of Fountaingrove.

Once, Yee was 99 percent certain his family would rebuild. Then they found out about their spotty insurance coverage and the benzene in the ground. Their home isn’t in the contamination advisory zone, but Yee worries the carcinogen could leach into his pipes, too. If the family doesn’t decide to rebuild, the lot might sell for less than it is worth.

“People are spending thousands on rebuilding,” Yee said. “The main concern is we don’t want to commit if we can’t get an occupancy permit, which the city will only issue if the water is clear. Who is going to pay for that process? It’s more than $40 million. And will it only take two years? Nobody knows the answers to that.”

Some residents can’t fathom how their neighborhood can ever fully recover from the blows it’s taken. In two years — when Blair Maus’ house no longer smells like smoke, when her neighborhood sounds like a neighborhood again, and when a $5,000 water filtration system is installed in her backyard as a precaution, even though she too is outside the advisory zone — Fountain-grove will be a different place.

Maus, 48, already misses what she had. Sometimes, when she cooked a big dinner, she asked the neighbors over for an impromptu meal. They went on walks together and took turns dropping the kids off at school.

Her home was spared by the Tubbs Fire, but she and her family are living in a Healdsburg rental until smoke remediation is complete this summer. They have to switch out all the doors and windows, too, because heat warped the old ones.

All around, neighbors are vacillating on whether to rebuild or move away. Sometimes Maus considers, too. She worries about the water and about what Fountaingrove will become.

“The city said our water is fine, right here,” Maus said. “But I still don’t drink it. I’m putting in a water filtration system in our house before we move back in. Water is the most critical thing. How can it just be that one area? Are they sure it’s no other area?”

“We’re all thinking of leaving,” she said. “Even if I don’t, I didn’t sign up to live in a ghost town.”

Lizzie Johnson is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @LizzieJohnsonnn

“A lot of what we are dealing with, no city has ever had to deal with before. ... We are building the plane as we fly it.”
Chris Rogers, Santa Rosa vice mayor

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