The vague sense of dread that hung over the lower Russian River last year seemed to arrive after the November 2018 Camp Fire disaster destroyed the Northern California town of Paradise. Guerneville greeted the New Year chattering about escape routes and blocked roads and asking “What if?”
Disaster has always been part of the lower river experience, but preparedness usually centers on flooding. Suddenly wildfires, public power outages and evacuation strategies had to be dealt with. The river’s rugged rural charm and its rustic public infrastructure suddenly seemed like a curse.
Disaster angst was amplified by a proposal (quickly cancelled) to not renew the National Flood Insurance Program in 2019 because President Trump wanted the money for a border wall.
Western Sonoma County also drew national media attention in January when a story on California’s chaotic efforts to regulate marijuana ran in the New York Times. Fifth District Supervisor Lynda Hopkins was part of the news, telling the Times, “There are definitely days when I think legalization has been a failure.”
On Feb. 27 the worst Russian River flood in 24 years hit the River, damaging dozens of shops and restaurants from Guerneville to Monte Rio. Small mountains of flood debris lined River Road along the Rio Nido strip west of downtown where residents and shopkeepers dug out.
“It will take me two years to recover,” said Stumptown Nursery owner Dorothy Hagan, surveying the damage that knocked buildings off their foundations.
February also saw the first meeting of the Lower Russian River Municipal Advisory Council (MAC), whose nine newly elected representatives were sworn in at the MAC’s first meeting. Fifth District Supervisor Lynda Hopkins administered the oath of office.
In March a jury found former Guerneville homeless resident Vincent O’Sullivan guilty of a hate crime for threatening to blow up gay people in Guerneville.
“The verdict’s message is that hate is not tolerated in this town,” said Beth Streets, a former Guerneville resident who followed the O’Sullivan case and was a witness in the trial. “I’m hoping people will be more aware” that hate speech is a crime and is totally unacceptable, especially in a gay friendly town like Guerneville, said Streets.
In April, Guerneville’s plucky art galleries welcomed artists and art lovers to the town’s monthly First Friday Art Walk that underscored the town’s spirit of recovery.
“We’re super excited to be open in time for Art Walk,” said Katharine Norris, working on her new Kuhr-Norris Gallery space as the town’s commercial district came back to life. “There’s a wonderful spirit of helping out” around town right now.”
At the Blue Door Gallery, owner and artist Douglas DeVivo kicked off a fundraising effort offering art workshops to support local flood relief. “This is about artists getting together to give something back,” said DeVivo.
Sonoma County Sheriff’s Lt. Mike Raasch said he was glad to be back at the Guerneville substation and in charge of law enforcement for a huge chunk of western Sonoma County.
“I’m happy to come back here,” said Raasch (the pronunciation of his name rhymes with gosh, nosh or posh). “You don’t see a lieutenant out here very often.”
As a sergeant, Raasch worked on the river from 2007 to 2010, then served as a detective in Windsor and was promoted to lieutenant in January and returned to the river substation after nearly 30 years in law enforcement.
“I think overall it’s a pretty safe community,” Raasch said of the lower river.
At the Russian River Senior Resource Center in May they launched a “re-envisioning” of the center’s mission. “A lot of people think the word ‘senior’ is bad,” said Emily Heinzelman, the Russian River Senior Center’s program director. “I think people have the misconception that we’re all sitting around here in wheelchairs and drooling. It’s not like that,” said Heinzelman.
“There are a lot of people turning 60 who still feel young and vibrant,” said Heinzelman. “We’re looking at how to get them to the center and see what they want.”
At a Russian River trail-planning workshop in May the first question from the audience was whether the proposed bike path would require private property acquisitions.
“Yes, probably,” was the response, but nothing heavy-handed. “We’ve never used eminent domain” in other county trail projects such as the Joe Rodota or West County trails, said Sonoma County Regional Parks Project Manager Steve Ehret.
The workshop was part of a larger conversation on where to put the proposed 19-mile trail envisioned along the Russian River from Forestville’s Mirabel Park area to Highway 1 on the Sonoma Coast.
In May a marijuana grow in the hills above Guerneville won approval from Sonoma County land use planners, who praised the cannabis cultivation project as an example of “best practices” for local pot growers.
“This is a great project,” said Greg Carr, a member of the Sonoma County Board of Zoning Adjustments (BZA), which unanimously approved the cultivation permit on a portion of 225 acres in the remote rugged hills between Guerneville and Healdsburg.
The Guerneville Community Church property on Armstrong Woods Road was sold in May to the Guerneville School District. The church had been for sale since 2017 when members of the tiny congregation felt they could no longer sustain the two-and-a-half acre site with its unique round redwood sanctuary, fellowship hall and kitchen. The church congregation moved to a new site at the former gas station on Highway 116 in Pocket Canyon.
Customers and staff hugged goodbye at Guerneville’s only health food store in June when owner Kimi Goodwin closed her Food For Humans grocery after more than 30 years.
“It was great, but hard,” said Goodwin, asked what it was like running the town’s beloved health food store on First Street all those years.
“I had very loyal customers” who sustained her store in the woodframe house that was a former doctor’s office.
“It was part of the fabric of this town,” said a customer.
The Rio Nido Roadhouse reopened in June after being inundated in the February flood. “We were a total loss,” said owner Brad Metzger, at a celebration of the restaurant-bar reopening. He credit friend and local volunteers for getting the roadhouse back on its feet.
In Monte Rio in June several hundred sweaty triathletes running through town couldn’t distract Ed Brochu from tending his highway garden where he has been planting flowers at the town’s entrance.
“Everybody passes here,” said Brochu. “This is a pleasant stop now. I think it helps the town.”
When fireworks went off on the Monte Rio beach in July it was the only remaining free holiday fireworks show along the entire lower river.
In Monte Rio they were also celebrating the town’s flood recovery. Paul DuBray’s Rio Café & Grill was totally ransacked when floodwater filled the Rio Theater in February, but DuBray and partner Alain LeCloux bounced back with the Rio Bistro, a new restaurant overlooking the river at the historic Village Inn.
A petition to outlaw late-night party noise awake attracted hundreds of signatures along the lower Russian River in July.
Marcy Cooper, a Guerneville resident, said she hoped to get 350 names among residents living in Guerneville, Monte Rio and Rio Nido.
Noise ordinance support was coming from full-time river residents who are working or parents raising kids or both, said Cooper.
West County Health Centers Executive Director Mary Szecsey greeted a healthy-looking crowd at a groundbreaking ceremony in August for Guerneville’s new Russian River Health & Wellness Center on First Street.
The $14.2 million center will offer medical, dental and behavioral services in a “health center of the future,” said Szecsey.
Mary Szecsey later announced in September she will be retiring in March 2020, after serving for 25 years. WCHS physician Dr. Jason Cunningham will be the new director.
Russian River Fire Protection District directors voted unanimously in August to annex the River Fire District into the larger Sonoma County Fire District. The annexation will dissolve the nearly 100-year-old River Fire District that serves approximately 5,000 fulltime residents within the district’s 18 square miles. The River District also comprises an ambulance district that serves nearly 200 square miles.
River Fire District Directors say the SCFD annexation will save district taxpayers money while improving future fire and emergency medical service in the lower river area.
LGBT Pride Parade returned to Guerneville this year with Cleve Jones, founder of the AIDS quilt project, serving as grand marshal.
The Friends of Fife Creek began work on creating a butterfly garden along the creek in Guerneville between Main and Fourth streets. The project is supported by a $2,500 gift from the Russian River Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and a $5,000 grant from the Sonoma County Water Agency.
Triumph and trepidation filled Guerneville School’s gym when nearly 200 people showed up for a disaster workshop on October’s Kincade Wildfire and potential future disasters.
The crowd applauded the first responders who contained the 120-square-mile blaze at Windsor, but their gratitude was tempered with fears that wildfires, evacuations and power shutoffs are becoming the new normal for Northern California’s fire season.
“Do we have to go through this every year,” asked a Forestville businesswoman, who closed up shop and evacuated when power was shut off.
“When something like this happens you can’t just go, ‘We did a great job and we’re ready for the next one,’” said Sonoma County sheriff’s Lt. Mike Raasch. “We have to plan for the next one now, because there probably will be a next one.”
Compared with the Tubbs fire that swept Sonoma County in 2017 and burned more than 5,500 houses, this year “We had a little bit more time,” said Raasch, regarding the Kincade blaze battle.
“We had God on our side,” Raasch said. “We had Mother Nature on our side and great firefighters, some 5,100 of them.”