Two years after the 2003 Cedar fire, nearly 4 in 10 households burned out at the upscale Scripps Ranch subdivision in San Diego had yet to complete their rebuilding projects.
Two years after the 2007 wildfires destroyed more than 1,600 homes around San Diego County, 1 in 5 fire victims said they planned to sell their burned properties rather than rebuild.
And nearly two years after Lake County’s 2015 Valley fire, 362 of the more than 1,200 property owners — less than one-third — had pulled building permits to replace their destroyed residences.
The different experiences shed light on a key question hanging over Sonoma County as it deals with the most destructive wildfire in state history: How many fire victims here will have the financial wherewithal and the willingness to rebuild homes?
“I am worried about how long this could take,” said Kenneth Klein, a California Western School of Law professor and legal expert on natural disasters.
Klein, whose own Scripps Ranch home was among 312 destroyed in the Cedar fire, said county residents need to understand the huge scale of resources needed for the rebuilding efforts. Preliminary government estimates state that more than 6,800 structures were destroyed in Sonoma County, including more than 2,900 homes alone in Santa Rosa. The next closest fire disaster in California was the 1991 Oakland Hills fire, which leveled 2,900 structures.
“In terms of wildfires,” Klein said, “there is nothing that compares with this.”
Klein and other experts said those fire victims with the fewest resources typically have the toughest time hanging on after such disasters. Some simply settle with their lenders and insurance companies and move on.
“They can’t sit around and wait,” said Randall Bell, CEO of Landmark Research Group, based in Laguna Beach, which assesses real estate damage from disasters.
Bell estimated the recovery here will take five to 10 years. After major hurricanes like Katrina in 2005, he said, only a quarter to half of the affected property owners stayed and rebuilt their homes. He predicts a higher percentage of North Coast fire victims will rebuild, but said it’s too early to make an estimate.
In the past 14 years California has suffered seven of the eight most destructive fires in state history. They include the Cedar fire, which burned over 2,800 structures; the Valley fire, which destroyed nearly 2,000; and the 2007 Witch fire, which claimed over 1,600.
Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey noted the progress of communities affected by those three earlier fires. He called the task facing Santa Rosa “daunting” but the city will aim to surpass those earlier rebuilding results.
“We need to do better than that,” Coursey said. “And we’re going to put every resource we can into doing better than that.”
The pace of recovery can be affected by the speed of government action, the availability of construction workers, the ingenuity of homeowners and the amount of community and outside support.
For the county, a key milestone will be the number of completed homes here within two years of the fires. The date matters: Under state law, insurance companies must provide up to two years of assistance for rent and other living expenses to owners of destroyed homes in disaster areas.
After two years, those still rebuilding could find themselves making monthly payments for both rent, and the mortgages on their ruined homes. Many fire victims are aware of that deadline and want to avoid the extra expense of temporary housing.