In Wake of Devastating Wildfires, Santa Rosa Mayor Looks Ahead to Improving the City

With wildfires still burning in Sonoma County, plans are beginning to take shape for the massive cleanup and rebuilding ahead.

The mayor of Santa Rosa already is looking to the future after hundreds of homes, businesses and other structures across the city were destroyed by flames.

On Wednesday night, there were signs of life as PG&E crews restored power in the devastated Coffey Park neighborhood. Mayor Chris Coursey said he's been told what lies ahead will be the biggest cleanup of its type in state history.

"There's people who lost their lives down there," Coursey said. "There's people who lost everything but their lives."

With a heavy heart, Coursey already is taking steps to help his city rise from the ashes, the ashes themselves considered toxic.

"Dealing with toxics first,' he said. "Dealing with recyclables second and then excavating out the ash to a certain depth."

That massive undertaking is expected to begin in the next couple weeks, Coursey said.

Rebuilding the 3,000 housing units lost to the fires presents an opportunity for improvement, the mayor says. With new homes and neighborhoods being built from scratch, it means a chance for such things as better energy efficiency, better cable and broadband infrastructure and solar on rooftops, he said.

"It may be a way for us to increase the density of the neighborhood, with second units being encouraged and incentivized on single-family properties," Coursey said.

For renters, there was a housing shortage before the fire, and now reports of price gouging are everywhere.

"There's a definition for it, and that's increasing the price of rent more than 10 percent during an emergency situation," the mayor said. "It's illegal, and our district attorney has vowed to prosecute it."

Coursey said the planning for recovery and rebuilding is very much up in the air right now. Federal, state and local officials are brainstorming, and the Santa Rosa City Council hasn't met since the fire hit 10 days ago. Residents will be heard, Coursey said, and he is hoping they don't lose hope and move elsewhere.

"There's a reason people live in Santa Rosa; that's because it's a great place," he said. "It's going to be an even greater place."

The city of Santa Rosa will hold two community meetings on Thursday to provide residents with information about re-entering neighborhoods. One of the topics on the agenda will be how to properly handle ash and hazardous materials. Residents will also get a chance to talk about housing options.

The first meeting is slated for 1 p.m. at the Sonoma Veterans Memorial Building located at 126 First St. West in Sonoma. The second meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. at the Santa Rosa High School South Gym, which is located at 1235 Mendocino Ave. in Santa Rosa.

NBC Bay Area's Pete Suratos contributed to this report.

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