Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey

Posted on in People in Your Neighborhood by Rob Sidon

The Destruction Is


Chris Coursey became mayor of Santa Rosa less than a year before the Tubbs fire struck his city and woke him out of bed at 2:30 a.m. on October 9. Collectively, the Northern California fires this October killed at least 43 people, the youngest, 14, and the oldest, 100. Approximately 200,000 acres have burned, destroying nearly 9,000 structures. Chris is a father of four and was a journalist for 30 years before he lost his wife to cancer in 2010.

Mayor Chris Coursey
Mayor Chris Coursey

Common Ground: It’s been a couple weeks since this tragedy devastated your city. Now that the fires are mostly contained, can you provide a snapshot of the destruction?

Chris Coursey: The destruction is mind-boggling. If you’ve had a chance to look at even the edges of some of these neighborhoods, it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen. I’ve flown over it and visited it with firefighters and it’s like nothing they’ve ever seen—and these are people who do wildfires for a living. It’s hard to get your head around.

Can you share how you learned about the fire and put us in that moment?

I got a call at about 2:30 in the morning on Monday the ninth from our deputy city manager asking me to authorize an emergency declaration. In my muddled state at 2:30 in the morning, I thought we had a wildfire on the edge of town and didn’t fully understand the extent of what was going on. I actually laid back to bed. I live close to downtown and sleep with my windows open and realized that the traffic outside my house was much heavier than during rush hour. I got up to look outside and smelled smoke and realized pretty quickly that this was more than a brush fire on the edge of town. I could hear repeated explosions all night long that I can only assume now were propane tanks, as people’s barbecues blew up in flames. That was the beginning of the fire for me.

Did you ever fear the whole city would be engulfed?

I didn’t. By the time I realized the extent of what had happened, the fire in the city was essentially out. The fire burned for a long time and spots of it are still burning as we speak, but within the city limits and within the more populated areas it was out pretty quickly.

What’s your life been like for the last couple weeks?

I’ve been doing a lot of interviews and going to a lot of meetings. I have spent very little time in my office. I feel like my role is to be out in the community talking to our residents—particularly those who have lost their homes and in some cases their loved ones and letting them know what we’re doing to respond. And to let them know that we want them to stay here. We want to keep our city whole and we’re planning to rebuild.

What’s been the most difficult part of this experience for you?

The learning curve. There’s never been a disaster quite like this in California and certainly not in Santa Rosa. So pretty much all of us are learning to be the victims of disaster. And we’re learning how to respond. Obviously, there are people who do this kind of work and we’re leaning on them. We’re talking to people from Lake County, which had their big fire a couple of years ago. We’re talking to San Diego County, which has experienced big fires. We had the city manager of Malibu on loan for a couple weeks. It’s a difficult subject to learn in the middle of the crisis.

How are you holding up emotionally and psychologically?

I am a pretty steady person. I don’t get too high or too low. That’s my personal theory of things. It’s a stressful time. I try to keep up my selfcare as far as starting the day by trying to get the fuzz out with some stretching and yoga on the floor. I have to admit that I haven’t been doing that as regularly as I was before. But I do realize that an important part of being able to support my city is taking care of myself.

I understand you lost your wife to cancer some years back. Did the loss of your wife somehow prepare you to better handle this situation?

[Long pause] That’s an interesting question. Somebody the other day said, “This must be the hardest thing you’ve ever dealt with.” I said, “Well, no it’s not.” I’ve had some difficult times in my life, including the death of my wife. Does that make me stronger? I don’t know. It does make me realize that there are a lot worse things that can happen than losing your house. And I don’t want to sound callous to the people who have lost their houses because I’m sitting here right now in my own house. I know that it’s a huge blow to these folks. But for me this is a challenge. It’s not the end of the world.

Are there any notable bright spots in this experience?

Absolutely. Our community is known for its volunteerism and its care for each other, and this has brought that more into the picture. From the moment the fire started, people were taking care of each other. Ordinary citizens were going through neighborhoods that were full of flames, with winds blowing 40 to 50 miles an hour, and knocking on neighbors’ doors. That probably saved a lot of lives. Since then, this community has raised over $12 million and counting in just one fund. There are many funds that have started. People were showing up at emergency shelters to volunteer everything from bringing their therapy dogs to bringing their nursing skills. Little kids on the corner in my neighborhood were waving signs and collecting canned food. So that’s been a very positive outcome of this.

Could you share an insight into the lives of the first responders you’ve interacted with?

I’ll tell you about two of them in the Santa Rosa Fire Department. One of them is a manager in the department who lost his house that night—yet I saw him every day doing his job. I didn’t know the whole first week that he had lost his house. He was just working hard like everybody else.

Our fire chief has been standing up in front of community meetings with several hundred people, and at times many angry people, who want to know why they didn’t get a phone call in the middle of the night to tell them the fire was coming or why there wasn’t some better warning system in place. He has stood up there and become very emotional and essentially said, “We don’t have all the answers; we don’t know everything that happened. That investigation will happen.” But it’s very clear that for him the loss of 23 lives in Sonoma County that night is a personal blow. He wishes that we could’ve done better. But it’s not just words for him. You can hear it in his voice and see it in his face.

You’ve been mayor for nearly a year. What were you doing before?

I’d been on the city council for three years. Before that I was semiretired, doing freelance writing and some public relations consulting. At the time my wife passed away, I was working for the SMART commuter train project, which just started running a few months ago. I was involved in that start-up. Prior to that I was a journalist for 30 years.

Has the cause of the fire been determined?

No, it hasn’t.

Where are we going from here? What’s the forecast?

Well we’ve got every alphabet soup agency from the state and the feds here in town helping with the cleanup. First, the debris removal job is enormous. The EPA is out now in the neighborhoods identifying hazardous waste and toxics that must first get removed. Then the Army Corps of Engineers comes in and takes away everything down to about six inches of soil to make sure that all the toxics are gone. And that’s expected to be done before spring. So come spring, we’re going to have 3,000 houses to build in Santa Rosa. And what we are doing now is trying to figure out how that’s going to happen. How we are going to handle all of the work that goes into building a house, from permits to pounding nails and putting roofs on. How to house the people who don’t have houses between then and now. How to house the workforce that’s going to be necessary to do all this. How to keep our city moving forward so we don’t end up at the end of this back to where we were two weeks ago. In 2020 or 2022 or whenever we’re done building all these houses, I don’t want us to be in I want us to be in 2020.

Any final comments?

Honestly, Rob, I can’t think of anything else, and I don’t want to just give a bromide of some sort.

Rob Sidon is editor in chief and publisher of Common Ground.

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