North Bay fire victims may be living in toxic debris zone

SANTA ROSA, Calif. (KGO) -- The North Bay wildfires destroyed entire neighborhoods - some 5,000 homes in Santa Rosa alone. Nearly all of Coffey Park was decimated in the inferno. But, a few residents returned to a miracle. Amid the rubble and ash of Coffey Park, their homes were still standing. At first they felt unbelievable joy, but that has quickly turned to worry.

"We got to the house, we pull in, and I cried,'' said Anna Brooner, who found her home still standing amid the ruins of Coffey Park.

"I was in disbelief,'' said her neighbor Lisa Mast, whose home also survived.

The survivors said at first they felt guilt for having their homes while friends and neighbors had lost everything. And most of their beloved neighborhood was in ashes.

"It was just so devastating to come back the next day,'' Brooner said. "What happened to our Coffey Park?"

VIDEO: Homes destroyed by fire in Napa's Silverado Resort area
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Firefighters told ABC7 News crews had to let a home burn near Stone Mountain Circle in Napa to conserve water, so they could save nearby homes.

"So many people lost so much,'' said neighbor Sandy Lowry, whose home also is standing.

But these survivors say they're in peril too. they get to return home but are living in the middle of a disaster zone, surrounded by toxic remains of burned homes- the charred wreckage piled up next to standing homes

"It just feels like the more we stay here the more we get exposed and nobody can tell us, is it safe," Lowry said

They worry about hazardous chemicals blowing in the ash.

A mile from this neighborhood, Schaefer Elementary School remains closed as unsafe. Yet, the children live just steps away from the debris.

"I don't believe this stuff is safe for anyone," Mast said.

Sonoma County health officials have provided guidance on cleaning soot and ash, but won't say it's safe - or unsafe to live there.

"It's an individual decision whether to stay or to go,'' said Sonoma County Environmental Health Officer Karen Holbrook said. "What I can say is we have been working so hard to make sure that the debris removal process is done safely and is done in a timely manner."

Lowry has tried to get cleanup help at a disaster center. "I told them I am in a standing house,'' she said. "They looked at me like i was from another planet."

Since she didn't lose her home, Lowry was not entitled to disaster aid. No help cleaning ash off her property. No monitoring of her air quality.

Now the survivors wonder if they'd be better off if their homes burned too.

Mast isn't taking any chances. She's sealing up her belongings, living in a faraway hotel.

"I am here wondering if I'm going to have some weird cancer in five years,'' Lowry said.

"Because we don't know,'' Mast added, "I'm scared to death."

County health officials recommended these homeowners clean all soot, stay away from ash, not to blow ash off their property and not to let children or pets wander outdoors. They also advised keeping windows shut and using HEPA filters in standing homes. Officials acknowledge that it's up to each standing homeowner to decide how to clean up, use insurance if they have it. and cover their own costs.

Click here for a look at more stories and videos about the North Bay fires.

Written and Produced by Renee Koury
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