SANTA ROSA: It will take at least months and likely years to fully recover from devastating wildfires that ripped through Northern California earlier this month, destroying at least 8,900 structures and killing 42 people, Sonoma County officials said.
"We don't control these things, and it makes you realise how small you are in the world when something like this happens," Sheriff Rob Giordano said. "I don't think we understand the level at which it is going to impact lives, and the community will be different." Giordano spoke before hundreds of people gathered at a college in Santa Rosa, one of the hardest-hit cities, for a memorial service to honour the lives lost in the deadliest series of wildfires in California history. The fires sparked October 8, eventually forcing 100,000 people to evacuate.
Before a bell rung 42 times to commemorate the dead, Giordano and other officials praised the ordinary and extraordinary acts of heroism by first responders and community members as the firefight raged on for more than a week.
Some firefighters worked days on the front line, refusing to take breaks, while sheriff's dispatchers continued taking calls even as the fire came close to taking out their building.
"The night of October 8, we were all tested," Santa Rosa fire Chief Tony Gossner said.
US House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and five members of Congress spent Saturday attending the memorial, touring the fire ravaged areas and gathering advice from federal, state and local officials on what Congress can do to aid the recovery efforts.
In a briefing in Santa Rosa, officials asked them to ease red tape that will make it easier to erect temporary housing and to ensure the Environmental Protection Agency has the resources it needs to clean up any hazardous material before it infiltrates the water supply.
The EPA has assessed 740 properties so far, while the Federal Emergency Management Agency has given out $6 million worth of rental and other assistance to displaced Californians, officials said. Officials estimate the cleanup of debris and other hazardous materials will last into early 2018.
The losses are estimated to be at more than USD 1 billion.
Pelosi and US Rep Mike Thompson, who represents Santa Rosa, said they must make their fellow lawmakers in Washington understand the unprecedented nature of the fires, the deadliest in California history. They drove through a neighbourhood near Coffey Park where entire streets are wrecked, with only burned-out cars and charred remains of once-standing houses lining the streets.
"It was just unfathomable the amount of destruction that we saw," Pelosi said. "My colleagues will have to understand this is different from anything else, many times over." But Pelosi said Northern California's response to the fires can serve as a national model for disaster response if done right.
She urged her colleagues in Congress to think beyond the incremental rebuilding needs to consider the big picture of helping the region better prepare for and mitigate damage from future disasters. Obtaining the appropriate amount of relief money will require detailed documentation of homes lost and other destruction, she said.