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More wildfires pushing many residents to say goodbye to Sonoma County

The question was not if Stephanie Ansley and her husband would leave Sonoma County, but where they would choose to relocate.

A civil engineer, he had his eye on Seattle. She liked the idea of moving to Washington but preferred something less urban — maybe Bellingham.

They compromised. Next spring, the couple will move to … Burlington, Vermont.

“It’s gorgeous,” she said. “Obviously, it’s cold in the winter. But we’ll take a few feet of snow in the winter over these fires.”

If the Tubbs and Kincade fires forced people to strongly consider leaving the county — to have earnest conversations with their partners and type terms such as “Zillow Reno” into search engines — the unprecedented infernos now burning have convinced some it’s definitely time to get out.

Interviews with nearly a dozen county residents ready to bail on the North Bay revealed many were leaning toward leaving even before dry lightning ignited hundreds of wildfires in California in August. Those infernos that have torched an unthinkable 3.1 million acres served as a kind of coup de grace, a final insult that made a hard decision easier.

Dean Coca of Windsor is selling his place, he said, and moving back to Maui. The fires had cost him “my relationship, my job and my pride.”

Ansley went to Piner High School, as did her husband. They were married in the front yard of the house they now live in, on the western outskirts of Santa Rosa. They thought of the Tubbs fire as “a one-time thing,” but were forced inside the following fire season by smoke from megafires elsewhere in the state. Last October, the Kincade fire forced the couple and their children, now 5 and 3, to evacuate for a week.

“Waking them up in the middle of the night for a fire they could see and smell — that’s something we didn’t want to go through again,” she said.

This summer’s infernos, including the Walbridge fire, which consumed over 55,000 acres in Sonoma County, proved to be the tipping point for them.

Since the Tubbs fire destroyed more than 4,600 homes in Sonoma County in 2017, wildfires in California only have gotten worse, she pointed out. “And I think they’re going to keep getting worse.”

Meanwhile, her children have been stuck in the house for a month due to poor air quality. “I think they’ve been outside twice.”

“This is not the kind of life we want for our kids,” Ansley said.

We thought we’d be here forever’

John Ross moved to Sonoma County as a teenager. Now 63, he’s been a professional dance instructor for nearly four decades. Until recently, he and his husband lived in Pocket Canyon, in Forestville.

He raved about the abundant natural beauty, the proximity of the Pacific Ocean. He likes the people in the Russian River Valley, the characters, the environmental awareness, the emphasis on slow growth.

“We thought we’d be here forever,” he said.

Instead, they’re now living in Rohnert Park, while the Forestville house is on the market.

“We’ve been evacuated three times” in recent years, Ross said. “And it’s not going to stop.” Between the threat of fire — the flames of the Walbridge conflagration came within a few miles of their house — the evacuations and bad air, “we just don’t want to deal with it.“

They have an offer on the house. If all goes well, they’ll be moving later this year to Palm Springs, “where real estate is half the price of what it is here.”

While this season’s early wildland blazes had not yet led to a flood of clients eager to list their homes, “I’m sure some people are having the conversation,” said Christen Hamilton, a real estate agent with Vanguard Properties in Santa Rosa. “It’ll be interesting to see what the next three to six months bring.”

For now, “we’re sitting at low inventory” of homes for sale.

After rebounding strongly in June and July, the county housing market went into a wildfire-induced “pause mode” in early September, said Ross Liscum, a Santa Rosa real estate broker affiliated with Century 21 NorthBay Alliance.

“The feeling is, it’s going to pick up again in the near future,” Liscum said.

That said, he’s had recent conversations with “a few” fire-weary clients who’ve told him, “You know, maybe it’s time we started thinking seriously about relocating to another state.”

Any fire-related exodus from the county could be offset by the influx of workers from San Francisco and the Silicon Valley, where some companies have given employees permission to work from home, more or less permanently.

Boys bouncing off the walls

After 12 years in the military, Ann and her husband were ready to leave San Diego and enter the private sector. They considered Minnesota, where her parents live.

“I don’t want to go to Minnesota,” fretted her husband. “We’ll be stuck inside all the time.”

So in 2018 they moved to Santa Rosa, where his family is from. Now, between the bad air and the coronavirus, she said, “We’re stuck inside all the time.”

“When I say my sons are bouncing off the walls, I mean it literally,” she said.

Following the Kincade fire last year, she said, “we made a pledge that if this year was more of the same, we were out.”

This fire season hasn’t been the same. It’s been far worse. So they’re headed back to San Diego, as soon as they can sell their house at not too much of a loss.

Because they haven’t yet shared their relocation plans with his family, Ann asked that her full name not be used.

The hardships that accompany wildfires — the evacuations, PG&E power shut-offs, the foul air — have been compounded, she said, by working from home and managing virtual learning for her two sons, ages 6 and 3, during the pandemic.

Her husband’s parents are elderly, and other family members work in the health care field. As a result, they seldom see their in-laws. The support she’d hoped for hasn’t materialized. The virus, and its enforced isolation, have made it difficult to make friends.

“I mean, I haven’t resorted to drinking in the shower, but it has been a little lonely,” Ann said.

I can’t go through this again’

After losing their home early three years ago in the Tubbs fire, Lisa Israel and her husband rebuilt quickly. They were back home on Coffey Park’s Pine Meadow Drive 15 months later.

Subsequent wildfires have worn her down. Reports of widespread loss of property, and, in some cases, life, trigger her.

“You heart starts racing, you see things burning, especially when it’s close, like the Walbridge fire. You just think, I can’t go through this again,” Israel said.

She knows that vast improvements made by the city and county — to improve forecasts, emergency alerts and communication — make it extremely unlikely that Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park neighborhood would ever undergo a similar catastrophe.

But that hasn’t stopped the difficult emotions from flooding back. “It’s a strange mindset,” Israel said, “but I think people who’ve been through this can appreciate it.”

While their move is probably a year or more away, the couple are in the process of choosing where to go. They’ve taken long looks at Branson, Missouri, and Sevierville, Tennessee, just north of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

To help them make the decision, they’ve posted 30 questions on a Google doc. Among the queries to themselves:

Why do we want to move? What kind of lifestyle do we want? What are things we’ll miss if we leave California? What do we need wherever we live?

“Obviously, we need a Costco and Trader Joe’s,” she said. “But what else do we need?”

End of a dream

“This is global warming in action,” said David Quigley of Santa Rosa, referring to the fires devastating the western United States. “This is the inconvenient truth.”

Quigley, a medical hypnotist and founder of the Alchemy Institute across from Howarth Park, moved to Sonoma County in 1976. He was drawn to redwood forests, the oceans and open minds of the Golden State. California, he said, “has been my paradise.”

Since 2017, however, it’s been tough to see Shangri-La for all the smoke. “It’s been orange skies, evacuations and get out of Dodge before the place burns to the ground,” he said.

Still highly active at 70, Quigley is an avid hiker, martial artist, rock climber, dancer “and wild man.” But he’s had it with this state. He’s planning a move to the East Coast, where many of his friends and clients live — and where, he said, “I can breathe the air, and where I’m pretty sure everything isn’t going to burn down tomorrow.”

“In a way, this is the end of a dream,” Quigley said.

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @ausmurph88.

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