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A few Fountaingrove fire survivors opt to rebuild sturdier homes after fierce Tubbs fire

When deciding whether to replace his charred Fountaingrove home with a house made with wood or concrete, William Cavalli considered two things - history and the fable of the Three Little Pigs.

More than 50 years before last October’s devastating Tubbs fire, the 1964 Hanly fire followed a similar destructive path from Calistoga to Santa Rosa, burning through a far less-populated Fountaingrove area. And way back in 1870, the hilltop neighborhood was torched by wind-driven blazes that also originated in the Calistoga area.

Cavalli, 73, said that was enough to convince him to build a more resilient home. His new house on on Garden View Circle is essentially an above-ground concrete residential bunker designed to be fire-resistant and earthquake proof.

“That’s three fires. I started thinking maybe we got to do something different,” Cavalli said. “It kind of made sense to me. We joke around, going back to the story of the Three Little Pigs.”

Cavalli is among a handful of Fountaingrove residents rebuilding their houses burned in last year’s fierce wildfire using concrete or steel frames rather than wood. The historic fire, the most destructive in California history, torched 5,636 structures, including more than 1,400 of homes in their neighborhood.

To be sure, modern wood-frame homes can incorporate fire-prevention materials and building technologies, such as boxed eaves and hardie board siding made with cement. Cavalli and a few of his neighbors, however, are not going to take the risk of rebuilding houses with wood.

The foundations, walls, ceilings, floors and roofs of their new homes will be built using insulating concrete forms. The construction method, which uses a permanent mold for poured concrete, essentially produces a single-cast reinforced concrete structure - “a cave above ground” - that for the most part is impervious to mother nature, said Nicholas Nikiforuk, a building specialist for IntegraSpec, a Canadian company that makes the concrete building materials.

On Thursday, Nikiforuk was helping train a crew that was erecting the walls on a new home in Fountaingrove. Nikiforuk said the wildfire overwhelmed the neighborhood was fueled with greater intensity and temperatures from the wood-framed homes themselves.

“If all of those homes were concrete, we wouldn’t be having this conversation because they’d still be there,” he said. “The foliage would be gone but not the houses; there’s no way.”

During the rebuilding, concrete construction and homes with steel frames are bringing peace of mind to some fire survivors.

“For me, I decided I needed to sleep well at night,” said Rene Latosa, 67. “It’s not the first time Fountaingrove has caught fire. ... Put a match to a wood house, put a match to a concrete house and see what happens.”

Latosa, a neighbor of Cavalli’s on Garden View Circle, is also using concrete materials to rebuild his home. Latosa said his 2,800-square-foot home had been built with a wood frame and covered with hardie board siding and a composite roof.

He and more than a dozen neighbors were planning to rebuild using concrete. But he said a local builder offered a discount on homes made with wooden frames. Now, only a few property owners in Fountaingrove are rebuilding houses with concrete frames.

Latosa, who bought his home in Fountaingrove 15 years ago, was in Prague teaching martial arts when he got a call from his wife at home informing him there was a bad fire in the area that was near their neighborhood.

By 1 a.m. on Oct. 9, 2017, she informed him their street was being evacuated. Latosa took an emergency flight home, met his wife, Coleen, in San Francisco and learned their house was destroyed.

Her safety and that of his family was all that mattered during those first few days after the fire. It wasn’t until he began to assess what had been lost that the “emptiness” set in.

“Everything is gone. All you have is your paperwork,” he said. “You don’t have a home, all you have is ash.”

Meanwhile, on Kilarney Circle in Fountaingrove, home and commercial builder John Farrow is resurrecting a 46-home community called The Oaks using steel framing. The Santa Rosa-based builder said houses built with alternative materials such as steel and concrete are the homes of the future for fire-prone neighborhoods.

“You’ll see more homes built from steel from here on out,” said Farrow, president and CEO of Farrow Construction.

Farrow, the master contractor of The Oaks, said the houses will resemble the previous community design, where the detached homes will be built in clusters of two-to-three units attached only at the garages.

The homes will be built to meet the latest state energy efficiency and green building standards, he said. Some will even comply with national net zero energy standards for residential homes built after 2020.

“All homes will have solar, all homes will be hardwired for car charger batteries, all homes will be steel framed with light-gauge steel, stucco exteriors and standing seam steel roofs,” Farrow said. “We’re making these not only efficient but fire safe.”

The advantages of steel, he said, include: faster construction; far less material waste because the steel comes pre-cut, pre-punched and ready for installation; superior strength; and greater precision because of less warping and bending.

He said the reason more homes aren’t built with steel is because many home builders are not familiar with alternatives to wood framing. There’s also an impression among property owners that steel is more expensive.

“There’s a learning curve for subcontractors,” he said. “But that learning curve is very short and it saves a lot of money and a lot of time.”

John McGarva, a local contractor and past owner of a wastewater treatment plant builder called Western Water Constructors, is also replacing his burned Fountaingrove home using concrete building materials.

McGarva, who has decades of experience building with concrete, said he long ago considered building a home out of concrete. But it wasn’t until he lost his home in the Tubbs fire that he started seriously considering it.

What sold him, he said, was that he could pour concrete floors and roofs.

“The coolest thing about this place is it’s all cast in one place,” said McGarva, as the white walls of his walk-out cellar were pieced together like giant legos.

His new home will have 7,000 square feet of floor space, and a little more than 4,000 square feet of it will be livable space. McGarva, a licensed contractor, said the it’s too early to tell whether his home will end up costing more than wood-framed homes being built in fire-scarred Fountaingrove.

Like The Oaks development, his home will have net zero energy consumption. After 2020, wood-framed houses could cost more than his, he said.

“In urban-wildland interface areas like this, noncombustible homes are going to be the way to go,” McGarva said.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com.

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