October wildfires force many to leave Sonoma County

There is no official tally of how many people have left Sonoma County since the fires, but a Press Democrat analysis suggests that as many as 7,000 people may have departed Santa Rosa last year. Their reasons are varied.|

Everyone told Kristy Militello and husband Ben Wylie that their dream home looked like a Cape Cod-style house in the Wine Country.

Purchased just two years before the Tubbs fire destroyed it, the nearly 5,000-square-foot home sat on 8½ acres with a stunning view of Riebli Valley, a pool and bocce ball court, and a zipline for their daughter, Ava.

But it wasn't just the loss of their home that made them decide to leave Sonoma County. For Militello, it was the loss of her past.

“It felt like the last 30 years of my life were incinerated,” she said. “It just was erased off the map. And the majority of our friends - they all lost their homes. Our world changed in four hours.”

Militello had grown up in Fountaingrove, in a house her father built on Long Leaf Court. She attended Ursuline High School, went to church at the Luther Burbank Center, and as a teenager worked the front desk at Fountaingrove Inn and as a hostess at the Steakhouse at Equus. All were either damaged or destroyed last October.

Like many others who lost homes in the fires, Militello and Wylie struggled to find a way to stay in the area. They still have the empty lot, but Militello said rebuilding had become complicated and too overwhelming. By the end of the year, the small family relocated to San Diego.

Other families have gone to places such as San Jose, Portland, Seattle, Colorado Springs and northern Idaho. Their departure represents one of the ongoing legacies of the October 2017 wildfires, which killed 24 people and destroyed 5,319 homes in Sonoma County.

There is no official tally of how many people have left Sonoma County since the fires, but a Press Democrat analysis suggests that as many as 7,000 people may have departed Santa Rosa last year, mostly for other parts of the county. An estimated 1,300 people left the county entirely last year, preliminary figures indicate.

Stories abound of local residents who cannot afford to rebuild what was lost; cannot afford to buy a different home elsewhere in the county; and cannot afford the area's ever- increasing rents. Some residents did not lose homes but are being pushed out of the rental market because of the sudden demand for housing after the fires.

‘I got very worried'

For some, the economic pressures that drove them out were deeply enmeshed with emotional and psychological scars that simply would not heal.

Mimi and Tom Greco didn't lose their home, but they simply could not bear living in what they feared had become a toxic moonscape.

The couple, who previously lived in Marin County, had found the ideal home in Santa Rosa's Wikiup neighborhood. It offered affordable rent with lots of space for their two sons, 5 and 11.

The family had lived in their Greenview Drive home for a year when the Tubbs fire swept through north Santa Rosa. It stopped at their retaining wall but took neighbors' homes just east of them, along with 740 houses in the greater Mark West/Larkfield area.

While their home survived, the neighborhood became a constant source of anxiety.

“I was worried about the chemical legacy - all the toxins in the soil now. I got very worried,” said Mimi, who works in the health care field.

Greco said she and her husband didn't want to leave Sonoma County. They simply wanted to get away from the burn zone. They stuck it out on Greenview Drive for a couple of months after the fire, with Greco always keeping an eye on her boys.

“They played a little bit outside, but I was careful for them on windy days,” she said.

Greco and her husband looked up and down the North Bay for a place to move to, from Cloverdale to Novato. Twice in mid-November they secured rental homes that would allow their kids to continue going to school in Santa Rosa, only to lose them to other bidders.

“Two times ... both those rentals got yanked out underneath us. It was shady, crazy times,” said Greco, who also recalled feeling guilty about competing with people who had lost their homes and everything they owned.

“Everybody, thousands and thousands were looking. I felt like I shouldn't be putting my name down,” she said, tearfully. “It was just this craziness going on.”

They decided to leave. Greco, who grew up in Eugene, Oregon, found a house in Portland and moved her family north in January. She always thought she'd raise her kids in the Bay Area but the fires exacerbated the area's already high cost of living.

“We just said, ‘You know what, we just don't have it in us,'?” she said.

An exodus?

It's too early to accurately assess how many people have left the county as a result of last year's fires.

Carmelita Howard, deputy director of Santa Rosa Housing and Community Services, said her department currently has no statistics tracking how many people have moved out of Santa Rosa after losing their homes.

But preliminary population figures released by the state in May provide a clue.

Santa Rosa added a net 424 residents in 2017, according to estimates by the state Department of Finance. However, the city's population should have grown by at least 7,400 people following its historic annexation of the Roseland neighborhood and four other parcels last year. The anemic increase suggests that 7,000 may have left the city, or roughly 4 percent of its population.

The city, currently home to 178,500 people, suffered the brunt of the losses during the October wildfires, losing 3,100 homes - or 5 percent of its housing stock.

Where did they go? Official figures do not track the location of fire survivors, but state population figures suggest that most have stayed within Sonoma County.

Sonoma County's population declined by nearly 1,300 people in 2017, after removing the impact of immigration into the county, according to estimates by the state Department of Finance.

It is unclear how many people have left the county since the beginning of this year. New data showing population changes through July will be released later this year.

Some expect the number of departures could increase next year. Insurance companies are required to provide two years of rental assistance to policyholders who lost their homes. For many, those payments will cease in October 2019.

No heart to rebuild

Leaving Santa Rosa and Sonoma County was no easy thing for Dan and Sherre Hulbert.

Dan, 66, was a longtime employee at Keysight Technologies and its predecessors, Agilent Technologies and Hewlett- Packard. The couple had lived in their Coffey Park home since 1988, when they bought it for $129,950.

They had just spent a year and a half remodeling the interior of their house and adding a 500-square-foot “dream” art studio for Sherre.

And then the Tubbs fire took everything they owned.

“It was wonderful. I had everything you could possibly want for creating art and it was almost finished when the fire hit,” Sherre, 62, said. “We were planning on staying there - forever.”

The couple said they “didn't have the heart to rebuild. Sonoma County is very expensive.” But the main reason they left was that their son in Colorado Springs was expecting their first grandchild. Dan retired from Keysight and they moved to Colorado Springs.

“We never thought we would live in Colorado, that's for sure,” Sherre Hulbert said. “It's been challenging in some ways, good in others.”

They've had to rebuild their lives, make new friends and reconcile with their losses. Dan's mother died a week after the couple moved to Colorado.

But they're now close to their new granddaughter and Dan, who's been golfing all his life, recently got his first hole in one, an event he said would not have happened if they were still living in California. They said they felt as though they were being led to Colorado.

The Hulberts said the fires have had a ripple effect on their family. Sherre has a sister who recently moved out of Santa Rosa to Granite Bay. Dan also has a sister living in Santa Rosa whose daughter lost her Larkfield home in the fire and moved to Boise, Idaho. He said his sister is planning to move to Boise at the end of the year.

Creating a new future

Many of the stories of loss and struggle are familiar.

Jenna Kiessig and her family lost their home in Coffey Park and now live Sunriver, Oregon. They barely escaped the fire and lost everything. Kiessig, who was born and raised in Sonoma County, said her family was already having a difficult time making ends meet because of rising housing costs.

“The fire exacerbated this problem exponentially,” she said in an email. “After staying with different family members for a few weeks we made the difficult decision to move to central Oregon less than a month later.”

She said her brother recently moved to Corvallis, about 90 minutes south of Portland.

“They didn't lose their home but their rent cost went up because of price gouging in the rental market,” she said.

“It was either that or park a trailer in the driveway of a family member, which did not sound appealing.”

Sarita and Pat Nichols lost their Fountaingrove home on Skyfarm Drive, which they bought in 2004. Before that, they lived in a house they purchased new in 1987 on Foxtail Court, in the Fir Ridge section of Fountaingrove. That house also burned down.

Though they loved living in Sonoma County, after losing everything the couple decided to move to the San Jose area, where their son and his wife lived. They purchased a home in a senior community called The Villages in the Evergreen section of San Jose.

“Although we believed a relocation was still five to 10 years into our future, the Tubbs fire changed all that,” Sarita said in an email. “It has been difficult. Not a day goes by when we don't remember items lost, some treasures and some just conveniences, and friends and favorite places now geographically distant. We have succeeded by looking ahead from Oct. 9 and working together at putting a new future together.”

Militello and Wylie, who are both real estate investors, purchased their Winter Brook Lane house as a distressed property and completely remodeled it. Militello said the housing frenzy that erupted after the flames and smoke died down saw people paying anywhere from $100,000 to $300,000 more than homes were actually worth.

They just couldn't see themselves paying those prices, not after losing the roots that bound them to Santa Rosa. With their past wiped away by fire, Wylie and his wife decided to start a new life elsewhere.

“When we'd go back into Sonoma County, it didn't feel the same. It didn't feel like home,” Wylie said.

“There was just a complete pivotal shift in everything. Everything was just a little off balance. Everything was just a little bit different.”

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

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:
  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.