Sunday Symposium: “The Fire and the Future”

  • Don McPherson

“We are now showing the potential of our community . . . can you imagine, if we kept this up moving into the future, what we can accomplish?” Santa Rosa City Council Member Tom Schwedhelm asked a capacity crowd at the Oakmont Sunday Symposium November 12.

photo of Schwedhelm at event

Schwedhelm has spent his entire career with the City, including 31 years with the Santa Rosa Police Department.  He retired in 2014 after a nearly five-year stint as Chief of Police.   He was elected to City Council in 2014 and served a term as Vice Mayor in 2015.

The fires covered 173 square miles, destroyed nearly 7,000 structures including 5% of the housing stock in Santa Rosa, displaced over 100,000 people and caused an initial $3 billion loss.  But Schwedhelm pointed out that as significant as those figures are, they understate substantially the ongoing loss as recovery efforts proceed over the next several years.

With rebuilding and redevelopment efforts necessarily extending years into the future, destroyed property will not produce the tax revenue it did immediately before the fires.  Similarly, an exodus of population in the near term will strain sales taxes as a revenue source.  In addition, lost businesses affect not only the owners but also their suppliers and all those employees who were on the payroll.

He urged deliberate decisions by citizens to “buy local” rather than elsewhere or on-line and to “eat local” when dining out to keep existing businesses operating and ameliorate significant revenue losses.

Schwedhelm explained how City Council’s creation of a “Resilient City Combining District” overlay for the neighborhoods most seriously affected has waived fees and streamlined demolition operations, construction permitting, and allowance for many types of temporary housing including trailers, RVs, manufactured homes and tiny homes.  He encouraged the public to use three websites that have been established to assist in recovery: sonomacountyrecovers.org; sonomacountyrises.org; and sonomacounty.recovers.org.

Schwedhelm noted that many areas of response to the fires will require more time and extensive community discussion, including ongoing investigation of the causes, evaluation of existing alert systems and procedures, and the utility of potential new alert systems such as sirens.  He emphasized that for hypothetical future emergencies, however, nothing can substitute for the exercise of individual responsibility to develop specific personal household response plans.