Fire-scorched Fountaingrove in Santa Rosa focal point of debate over rebuilding after Tubbs fire
As Santa Rosa sets its sights on rebuilding following the deadly wildfires this month, the city has sent homeowners a clear message that it will not stand in their way.
Anyone who owned a home in the city has a right to rebuild it in the same place, as long as modern building codes are followed, officials have said.
But some are asking whether it’s wise to let one neighborhood in particular — the hillside enclave of Fountaingrove — be rebuilt as it was, given that it has now burned to the ground twice in 53 years and wasn’t built according to city rules to begin with.
The Tubbs fire, which roared over the hills from Calistoga on Oct. 8, claimed hundreds of homes in the upscale neighborhood.
“I hesitate to even suggest this,” said Sonoma County Supervisor Susan Gorin, a former Fountaingrove resident who lost her Oakmont home in the Nuns fire to the south. “But many people are starting to say, why are we — and this is in the city’s realm — why are we thinking about permitting the rebuilding of Fountaingrove?”
The question is not an idle one. The cleanup of debris left by the destruction of 2,900 homes citywide in the Tubbs and Nuns fires is already underway. If it goes according to plan, homesites could be ready to rebuild in a matter of a few months.
City officials and most of the City Council have adopted a full-speed-ahead approach, seeking to give hope to residents by prioritizing their building permits, waiving fees and giving broad new authority to staff to approve permits swiftly by limiting public review.
Those moves have been embraced by the development community. But others are asking whether the city, by moving so fast, might miss its chance to rebuild smarter and safer.
Resident Marsha Taylor told the City Council she felt the city was suffering a kind of post-traumatic stress from the devastation, and urged patience.
“Putting our community in a fire-prone area has jeopardized all of us and frightened us horribly,” said Taylor, a retired teacher. “We need to slow down, we need to be thoughtful and we need to look at the urban planning mistakes that we have made in the past and rethink them now, and not repeat those errors over and over again.”
Footprint of fire
One of the most striking images to emerge from the aftermath of the deadly wildfires is not a photograph but a map comparing the footprint of the Tubbs fire with the epic 1964 Hanly fire.
The map, produced by Cal Fire and reproduced by the city of Santa Rosa, shows just how closely the two fires mirrored one another.
The main difference between the two is how much farther west the wind-whipped Tubbs fire traveled from its origin outside Calistoga, racing overnight through rural estates and reaching into established urban neighborhoods on the Santa Rosa Plain.
The other big difference: In the five decades between the two blazes, thousands of homes had been added to that landscape.
The Hanly fire was started Sept. 19, 1964, by a deer hunter who flicked his cigarette behind a roadside tavern near Mount St. Helena. It is seared into local memory both as a terrifying event, and a disaster largely averted through a successful firefight.
The blaze was ultimately stopped within yards of the former county hospital on Chanate Road. And unlike the Tubbs fire, which killed 22 people in Sonoma County, the Hanly fire resulted in no deaths.
By the time the 1,400-acre Fountain Grove Ranch was being eyed in the 1970s for development of commercial and light-industrial uses, plus hundreds of luxury homes, there was little discussion about the fire danger posed by hillside homes.
The focus instead was on high-tech jobs that Hewlett-Packard would bring to the area with a 200-acre campus; the boost to “quality of life” in the region; the safeguards in store for historic structures like the Round Barn (itself destroyed in the Tubbs fire); and the annexation and service costs for taxpayers in the city of 50,000.
Similarly, in the 1980s and early 1990s, when a second phase of development on 600 adjacent acres was being considered, the attention focused not on the proposed homes themselves, but on the planned road to reach them.
The majority of the discussion around Fountaingrove II, a proposal for several hundred hillside homes in the southern portion of the former cattle ranch, revolved around the cost, alignment, speed limits and wisdom of the 2.4-mile extension of Fountain Grove Parkway from Highway 101 over to Rincon Valley. The roadway, which city planners hoped would improve traffic flow, eventually cost $23 million.