Sonoma County population continues to decline after 2017 fires
Peter Gerien, a 77-year-old New Yorker born and raised in Queens, moved to Santa Rosa with his wife and young son 26 years ago. He hoped to stay forever. But after his Fountaingrove home burned in the Tubbs fire, he eventually moved to Naples, Florida, where starting over wouldn’t be so difficult.
Mara Palmer, originally from Concord, came to Sonoma County 19 years ago with her then-husband and new baby. They rented a house on a vineyard, the perfect start to a long love affair with the area. It would end in Coffey Park, where flames destroyed her rental home. Palmer moved to Ukiah, where home prices were less of a drain on her family’s income.
“The rents were just skyrocketing,” Palmer, 49 said of the housing market after the 2017 firestorm. “There was just no way. We didn’t have insurance, and there was no help paying for living expenses other than a small amount from FEMA.”
The decision these families made to leave Sonoma County was not easy. In fact, for many it was heartbreaking, forcing them to leave behind friendships, family and years of memories forged before the wildfires erupted in the middle of the night 15 months ago.
The families’ departures are reflected in new state data that indicates Sonoma County lost 2,207 people - more than any other county in the state - during the 12-month period ending July 1, 2018.
The figures suggest that an unexpectedly large and growing number of residents are leaving the county after the 2017 wildfires, which destroyed more than 5,300 homes countywide, including 5 percent of the stock in Santa Rosa, California’s largest city north of the Golden Gate.
A shortage of affordable housing before the fires became even worse as rents and home prices jumped in the ensuing months, forcing many to reconsider one of the most fundamental decisions in their lives: Where should they live and build a future for themselves?
Increasingly, the answer is not Sonoma County.
If the estimates are confirmed in future studies, it would mark the end of more than a half-?century of uninterrupted population gains in the county, which has doubled in size since the mid-1970s to 501,427 people last summer.
The state population figures are derived from annual estimates that take into account births, deaths, immigration and migration. Though less precise than U.S. Census figures collected once a decade, they are widely viewed as a barometer of a region’s vitality.
Many of those who have left Sonoma County or are planning to pull up stakes say they are being pushed out. Some cannot afford to rebuild what they had. Others would have to dig deep into their savings to rebuild something smaller. Still others say they are being driven away by rising rents that put anything bigger than a studio or one-bedroom apartment out of their reach.
And there are those for whom Wine Country has lost its luster - those who barely escaped flames and are constantly reminded of their experience by the unavoidable fire-scarred landmarks around them.
The exact number of people who are leaving Sonoma County because of the fire won’t be known for years, and there continues to be no official tally.
But the new population estimates, released in December by the state Department of Finance, suggest the exodus of residents is growing.
The state agency estimated the county lost 3,397 people to domestic migration, a net figure derived from the number of people who moved in and out of the county during the 12-month period ending July 1, 2018. Their departures were partly offset by the arrival of immigrants: the county gained 1,052 people from other countries, on net, a number that reflects the impact of inward and outward flows of foreigners.
After factoring in deaths and births, the county’s population fell by 2,207 people, the state estimated.
The decline has intensified since May, when the state estimated the county’s population had dropped by 1,281 people during the 12-month period ending Jan. 1, 2018, little more than two months after the fires.
The new estimates cover an additional six months of population changes in the wake of the fires.
The Press Democrat asked readers who had moved away in the disaster’s wake or were planning to leave to share their stories. More than 20 people responded, many of them citing the rising cost of living in Sonoma County.
‘It’s tough to start over’
For Gerien, the 77-year-old New Yorker, deciding whether to stay or leave was a question of what time he had left to embark on a yearslong rebuild.
“To do the entire house from scratch, because there was nothing left there, was too much,” he said. “We figured it would take us five to seven years to rebuild it. When you’re 77, you don’t have five to seven years to sit around and wait to see the porch is going in right.”