Sonoma County’s biggest stories of 2010-2019 include wildfires, housing, climate change, homelessness
The biggest single news event in Sonoma County during the past decade roared into Santa Rosa through Mark West Creek canyon during the dead of night in October of 2017, incinerating three neighborhoods and sending terrified residents fleeing their homes with what little they could grab, as frantic first responders pounded on doors and yelled at people to get out.
Other major stories emerged slowly, with a broad failure to build affordable housing over the decade sending home prices soaring, squeezing out working-class residents and deepening a homelessness crisis manifested by the current massive encampment in west Santa Rosa.
The top news stories from the past 10 years include the launch of a regional rail agency, a fledgling legal cannabis industry taking flight and the construction of an $800 million casino and resort in Rohnert Park, as well as Sonoma County's Latino community expanding its role in the region's civic and business life.
Many of the most significant stories are likely to serve as harbingers for the decades to come. The housing and homelessness crises have yet to be solved, and the wildfires, drought and flooding of the past decade are expected to increase in frequency and severity as the planet heats up.
Here are the top 10 news stories from 2010 to 2019, as decided by Press Democrat editors and staff members.
The fireball that roared across all six lanes of Highway 101 in Santa Rosa about 3 a.m. on Oct. 9, 2017, signaled that everything had changed for Sonoma County residents.
AJ LeBaron, driving south from his former home in Larkfield, saw the wind hurl a mass of flaming tree branches across the freeway north of Hopper Avenue. “Boom, it was there,” he recalled, as a wall of fire erupted in his path,
“I was stunned. I just slammed on my brakes,” said LeBaron, now a resident of Mobile, Alabama.
Two years later, when Cal Fire's incident management team warned that the Kincade fire might cross Highway 101, roar down River Road and burn all the way to Bodega Bay, Sheriff Mark Essick had no cause for doubt. He expanded a mandatory evacuation on Oct. 27 to the entire west county, requiring nearly 190,000 people - more than a third of the county's population - to get out of harm's way.
“I look at October 2017 and I still get emotional about this because I was there,” Essick said. “We lost 24 lives.”
Sonoma County's psyche remains scarred by the death and destruction from wildfires wrought by climate change and corporate practices that public officials have characterized as negligence. The 2017 firestorm destroyed more than 5,300 homes, compounding the county's housing shortage and homelessness crisis, while the Kincade fire took another 374 ?homes and scorched a record 77,758 acres.
Pacific Gas & Electric, driven into bankruptcy by billions of dollars in liabilities for wildfires linked to its equipment, faces an uncertain future, and Californians confront the peril of increasingly long, hot fire seasons.
The fearsome trend, which hit Lake County in 2015, now totals 23,781 wildfires consuming 3.8 ?million acres statewide since 2017.
But there are upsides to the story.
The lack of preparation and bungled response to the 2017 firestorm led to robust improvements to wireless emergency alerts, a network of fire-monitoring wildland cameras and other preparedness measures that helped the region better respond to the 2019 Kincade fire, the largest in Sonoma County history.
Since 2017, Sonoma County has rebuilt 1,176 homes, with 1,869 more under construction and permits pending or issued for 478. The North Bay Fire Relief Fund, a partnership of Redwood Credit Union, The Press Democrat and state Sen. Mike McGuire, raised $32 million to assist fire victims.
What's more, the disasters deepened community bonds. The Sonoma Strong movement saw residents unite in Hidden Valley, Coffey Park, Larkfield Estates and other neighborhoods.
2. Housing crunch
Sonoma County's housing shortage escalated through the decade, exacerbated by wildfire losses as the median price for a single-family home rebounded mightily from the recession, going from $305,000 in 2009 to a record above $700,000 ?in 2018.
The price dipped to $660,000 in October, but homeownership remains beyond the reach of the vast majority of county households, and 39 percent of households face a “housing burden,” defined as spending 30 percent or more of their monthly income on mortgage payments. More than half of renters face the same challenge.
Robert Eyler, a Sonoma State University economist, summed up the county's lingering dilemma bluntly: “More demand than supply. It's that simple.”