By John Ramos

COFFEY PARK (KPIX 5) — Most North Bay residents who fled the Kincade Fire returned to houses untouched by the flames, but the smoke damage is impacting far more people.

Firefighters did a great job preventing homes from burning, but all that smoke took its toll. George Gutierrez’s Healdsburg home was about a half mile away from the flames. It was saved, but that doesn’t mean he can live there now.

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“It’s dissipated slightly, but not enough to where we’re comfortable being inside,” he said. ”I mean, it takes not more than five minutes before we start getting headaches from the smoke.”

Most of the people at the Healdsburg assistance center Monday have returned to homes saturated with smoke and ash. Lani Jolliff’s home barely survived the Coffey Park inferno two years ago. She came to Healdsburg to warn people to take smoke damage seriously.

“You’re going to feel it,” she said. “You’re going to feel the effects, you’re going to have the headaches, you’re going to have the sore throat, your chest might hurt. I talked to three families who have babies…I’m like, ‘Don’t go home!’”

Back at Gutierrez’s house, Franco Bercino, an inspector from fire restoration company ServiceMaster, was surveying the damage. They recommend that people with smoke damage do not try to clean, or even turn on the AC or heater until a professional has examined the home.

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These actions can spread the smoke residue and make things worse. Gutierrez is looking at several days with industrial air scrubbers, a complete wipe-down of the interior and, most likely, a complete replacement of the attic insulation.

“Those vents can’t be closed, can’t be stopped. So that smoke, that soot, that ash comes through into that exposed attic settles into the insulation…and that smell’s not going to go away, not going to dissipate.”

And Jolliff says it’s not a good idea to just “tough it out” and live with the smell.

“We don’t know what the health consequences are going to be years from now,” she said. “And that’s why people aren’t mindful. ‘Oh, it doesn’t smell, it’s OK.’ What you can’t see can kill you.”

It’s not always an easy fix, but the good news is that smoke damage is usually covered by homeowners insurance, although Jolliff says sometimes you have to press the issue to get companies to take it seriously.

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She and other survivors in Coffey Park will hold an informational meeting specifically about smoke damage on Nov. 18 in Santa Rosa. For information about where and when, visit their website at