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 Saturday.
"We don't control these things, and it makes you realize 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 Day of Remembrance to honor the lives lost in the deadliest series of wildfires in California history. The fires sparked Oct. 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 Oct. 8, we were all tested," Santa Rosa fire Chief Tony Gossner said.
U.S. 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 $1 billion.
Pelosi and U.S. 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 neighborhood 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.
Santa Rosa alone lost five percent of its housing stock, Pelosi said.
"What would we like to see the result be? Let's engineer it back from there," she said of the rebuilding efforts.
Thompson and other members of Congress, meanwhile, were asked to look at ensuring immigrants living in the country illegally are not at risk if they contact the Federal Emergency Management Agency. They were also asked to look into improving the system for alerting people of pending disasters, a more difficult task now that more homes rely on cellphones instead of landlines.
As of Saturday, with the 51,624-acre Atlas fire completely contained, the three other blazes that ravaged the North Bay — the Tubbs, Pocket and Nuns fires — are nearing complete containment, Cal Fire said.
The Tubbs Fire, which claimed the lives of 22 people, destroyed about 5,300 structures and burned 36,807 acres, is now 97 percent contained, Cal Fire said.
The Pocket Fire, which burned 17,357 acres, is also 97 percent contained. The Nuns Fire, which killed one civilian and one private water tender operator, destroyed about 1,200 structures and burned 56,556 acres, is now 97 percent contained, Cal Fire said.
Firefighters continue to extinguish hot spots and do fire suppression repair work, according to Cal Fire.
NBC Bay Area's Thom Jensen and Bay City News contributed to this report.