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.