Mendocino County residents get key funding pledge to boost rebuilding after fires

It was a cruel twist after the October fires that much of what stood in the way for hundreds of Mendocino County homeowners seeking to rebuild were fire-safety measures that required them to install sprinklers.

Nearly all had older homes that lacked such systems. But the new plumbing needed to support the upgrades penciled out at a costly $7 million for the small water district that serves more than half of the 314 homes destroyed in the Redwood Valley fire.

The insurmountable sum — far in excess of the district’s reserves — raised the prospect that property owners would have to acquire, at a cost of up $10,000 per home, water tanks capable of supplying adequate pressure for the sprinklers. Many in the rural area north of Ukiah were already struggling with the decision to rebuild or relocate.

“This is the biggest challenge when it comes to Mendocino County’s rebuild,” said state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg. “And it’s unacceptable. This is public infrastructure that needs to be fixed so that those who lost everything can rebuild their lives.”

Those rebuilding efforts took a large step forward this month when the state agreed to help replace Redwood Valley’s aging water system.

A $2 million allocation in the state budget will allow the Redwood Valley County Water District to install larger pipes needed in modern water systems. In turn, residents served by the district will be able to rebuild their homes with fire sprinkler systems, mandated by the state for new homes since 2011 — and without having to shoulder the cost of individual water tanks.

“This budget represents good news for the North Bay,” said McGuire. “There are a series of unprecedented investments. This $2 million was elevated because there is such a significant hole in the rebuild and recovery.”

The remainder of the funding, about $5.3 million, is slated to come from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which agreed to pay for up to three-quarters of the project’s cost if state and local partners provided the rest.

The state Legislature adopted the budget on June 14, and Gov. Jerry Brown has indicated he approves of the funding for the project, said McGuire and Assemblyman Jim Wood, D-Santa Rosa, who began lobbying the governor’s office in November to close the $2 million gap. The Mendocino County Board of Supervisors, state Office of Emergency Services and the Redwood Water district were also active in the initiative.

Much like the costly water contamination problems that have faced parts of Santa Rosa since October, the sprinkler upgrade has clouded rebuilding progress in this corner of Mendocino County, where nine people died in the fires and more than 36,000 acres were burned.

“The mood at our fire recovery meetings was really kind of dismal, and we were thinking we’ll never get this $7 million we need to get bigger pipes,” said Cassie Taaning-Trotter. The 3-acre property where she lives with her husband, Marvin Trotter, was overrun by flames.

As they plan their home project, the couple are staying in a 400-square-foot studio with their three dogs. They’re especially thankful the cost savings will allow them to rebuild their home rather than pick a less expensive prefabricated option.

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