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Wildfire Destroys Santa Rosa Neighborhood Outside of Fire Hazard Zone

The Wine Country wildfires destroyed Coffey Park, a subdivision within the urban boundaries of the Bay Area's fifth largest city, and outside of the state's severe fire hazard zones. But the cause wasn't a mystery to wildland fire scientists.
October 20, 2017, 9am PDT | Irvin Dawid
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Coffey Park in Santa Rosa, pictured on October 17, 2017.
The National Guard

The Wine Country wildfires began on Sunday night, Oct. 8. One of its first major casualties of the Tubbs Fire was Coffey Park, "a compact subdivision of modest single-family homes built decades ago," reported Robert Digitale for The (Santa Rosa) Press Democrat on Oct. 9.  The Associated Press called the neighborhood "Ground Zero for California fire devastation" on Oct. 14.

Watch a video taken from the SMART train as it goes through Coffey Park. Note the presence of trees, particularly the ones with their foliage intact, and the absence of structures in the conflagration.

The subdivision's location, within the northern boundaries of Santa Rosa, the county seat of Sonoma County, is outside the fire hazard severity zones mapped by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), which made it an odd candidate for such destruction, although it is within the wildland-urban interface as drawn by at least one firm.

"The fire hazard zone shown on city and state maps was to the north and east, on the other side of the 101 Freeway," report Doug Smith and Nina Agrawal for the Los Angeles Times on Oct. 15.

“We live in a subdivision in the middle of freaking Santa Rosa,” said Anna Brooner, whose house still stands on the side of Randon Way that didn’t burn, facing a scene of rubble and ash oddly punctuated by street trees that still have leaves and a plastic recycling bin that didn’t melt.

“I could see living on the outskirts of the mountains, you always have the potential of fire,” Brooner said. “But you would never expect it in a subdivision of this size.”

Those trees help wildland fire scientists understand what made Coffey Park vulnerable to the wild fire. The subdivision was the victim of an urban fire, caused by a wildfire.

They view it as a rare, but predictable, event that has exposed flaws in the way fire risk is measured and mitigated in California. Because it was outside the officially mapped “very severe” hazard zone, more than five miles to the east, Coffey Park was exempt from regulations designed to make buildings fire resistant in high-risk areas.

Though a forensic examination will be required to understand exactly what happened at Coffey Park, the unburned trees still standing in the neighborhood tell wildland fire experts that the cause was not a giant front of flames sweeping out of the nearby hills and fields.

Most likely, the fire was touched off by embers blown from a distance. Firebrands capable of igniting a house can travel more than a mile.

Fire experts surmise that most of the damage was caused by fire spreading from house to house, leaving some parkway trees and things like trash cans oddly unscathed

"The designation of a fire hazard zone could, however, ensure that as Coffey Park is rebuilt, there would be mandatory building requirements to better protect it against a future conflagration," conclude Smith and Agrawal.
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Published on Sunday, October 15, 2017 in Los Angeles Times
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