October wildfires force many to leave Sonoma County
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.
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.