Sonoma County faces long road to recovery following devastating Wine Country fires
Sonoma County and Santa Rosa will be forever changed by the most devastating wildfires in state history.
At least 23 people are dead, 6,800 buildings destroyed and thousands of residents displaced in the county. Untold more are grappling with emotional wounds and financial burdens left by what Gov. Jerry Brown called “a horror that no one could have imagined.”
With the flames mostly contained after an unprecedented firefighting effort and recent light rains, local leaders are now turning their attention to the arduous task of recovery.
How long will it last? Who will rebuild? And how will the city and county that emerge from the ashes be different?
Local leaders are banking on the region rebounding quickly following a speedy cleanup effort, a streamlined rebuilding process and a support system generous and responsive enough to allow displaced residents to stay or return.
Others can’t see how the blow to the economy, deepening of the area’s chronic housing crisis, acute labor shortage and volatility in supply and cost of building materials, can lead to anything but years of stagnation and exodus.
Some see the full recovery taking a decade.
But if the city displays the same courage, unity and compassion during the recovery as it has responding to the fires so far, Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey says he’s confident the recovery can be robust and the city that rises from the ashes will be stronger.
“We have all the advantages of any place that’s ever existed on earth that’s gone through a disaster,” Coursey said. “I don’t want to put a cap on expectations. I think our expectations right now should be through the roof.”
The race is on
Just like first responders sprinted to evacuate people ahead of the inferno that blasted down from Calistoga two weeks ago, Sonoma County and Santa Rosa officials are now racing to get the recovery underway as fast as possible.
The longer the cleanup and rebuilding process takes, the greater the number of people who will be unable - or unwilling - to see it through. They may opt to start over in a place that is cheaper, closer to where they work or nearer friends and family.
“We know we’ll probably lose population from this,” said Debbi Lauchner, chief financial officer of the city of Santa Rosa. “I know people who’ve lost their homes who said they’re not relocating back to Santa Rosa.”
Homebuilder Keith Christopherson said he has been contacted by dozens of people asking about their homes, many of whom have fled to other parts of the country.
“People have just scattered to the winds,” said Christopherson, who built many of the homes in the upscale Fountaingrove neighborhood that went up in flames.
Santa Rosa lost at least 2,907 homes in the fires, or 5 percent of its housing stock, plus 86 commercial properties representing 400,000 square feet of space. County officials put their tally at more than 3,800 occupied structures in the unincorporated area.
Both Santa Rosa and Sonoma County were already consumed by a housing crisis long before the destructive fires wiped out entire neighborhoods. Pressured by its proximity to San Francisco and Silicon Valley and constrained in other ways by its rural character, the county’s rents had skyrocketed, apartment vacancy rates were near zero and home prices were out of reach for many residents.
The crisis has only become more desperate.
“We couldn’t afford to lose one single housing unit prior to this,” said Sonoma County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Shirlee Zane.
Now the county’s goal of “housing for all” seems much farther out of reach, she said. Even residents not directly affected by the fire are finding themselves wondering whether the housing crunch is about to become unbearable. Many who were already struggling with the high cost of living and housing are asking whether the time is right for a move.
“We’ve felt pushed to the edge for a while, and now I feel like it’s at a tipping point,” said Laura Bohler, who rents a home outside Healdsburg.
The 55-year-old paralegal raised her three daughters in Sonoma County and has parents in Novato, so she doesn’t want to leave. But as a renter, she can’t see any way she’ll be able to afford the higher rents she now fears are on the horizon.
“We were thinking we were going to have to make this decision about two years out, but we need to start planning now,” Bohler said. “We’re thinking Cloverdale or Lake County or Arizona.”
Getting as many residents back into a routine as quickly as possible is one of the most important priorities for any disaster-hit area, said Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University.