Sonoma County rebuilds two-thirds of homes lost in 2017 wildfires
On the morning of her 34th birthday last July, Katrina Lassen woke up in her new house in Larkfield Estates, a suburban subdivision where all 163 homes had been incinerated by the Tubbs fire in 2017.
“It was surreal,” she said. “I just felt at home immediately.”
The ranch-style home lost in the blaze was where her husband, Danny, a Santa Rosa firefighter, had grown up. In its place, the Lassens built a three-bedroom home for their family, including their son, Kaiden, 11, and daughter Makenna, 9.
“I love it,” Katrina Lassen said. “The quarantine has given us a lot of extra time in these walls.”
Lassen said she’s especially fond of the large soaking tub and balcony adjoining the second-floor master bedroom.
Their home is one of 138 rebuilt in the subdivision, where only 25 lots remain vacant. It is one of the more than 1,700 homes already rebuilt in the wake of the 2017 wildfires that destroyed 5,334 Sonoma County homes.
In Santa Rosa, the Tubbs fire alone destroyed about 3,000 homes, primarily in Coffey Park and Fountaingrove and accounting for 5% of the city's housing stock.
With nearly 2,000 homes under construction or in the permitting process, the county is on track to rebuild 68% of the stock lost in a little over two and a half years, the result of a remarkable and reportedly unrivaled recovery driven by community resolve and eased by streamlined bureaucracy, but also fraught with complications.
“FEMA hasn't seen recovery numbers like we've had anywhere,” David Guhin, a Santa Rosa assistant city manager, said, relaying the response he has heard from federal disaster experts about the county’s rebuild effort.
“Grizzled veterans” at the Governor's Office of Emergency Services are “over the moon about the progress Sonoma County has made,” said state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg.
Yet while state and local officials applaud the replacement of more than two-thirds of the torched homes, they also cite the remaining shortfall ― attributed to a range of issues including six-figure gaps in insurance coverage and “sticker shock” from inflated construction costs.
“It's pretty good but not good enough,” said county Supervisor James Gore, whose district lost 2,387 homes, absorbing 45% of the loss.
“We knew 25 to 30% would be left behind, primarily those who were underinsured,” he said. “We saw in the early days the cracks were already forming.”
One-third of 460 respondents in a survey late last year told United Policyholders they had not settled the dwelling portion of their homeowners insurance claim.
“It sort of paralyzes people. They don't know what they can spend to rebuild,” said Amy Bach, executive director of the San Francisco-based nonprofit.
Nearly two-thirds said they were underinsured by an average of $367,000, a rate Bach said is “consistent with what we find after every disaster . . . a needle we can't seem to move.”
Gore said Federal Emergency Management Agency officials expected underinsurance in the $300,000 range, and “I thought they were crazy.”
He's no longer a skeptic, saying he knows of homeowners who were underinsured by as much as $1 million.
Many homeowners take a gamble, low-balling their policy cost on the odds that a total loss is relatively rare, said Bach, an attorney. The courts generally put the burden on homeowners to obtain adequate insurance, she said.
Gore said he thought some homeowners had been “totally screwed over by their insurance company,” while others were to blame for failing to upgrade their coverage over time.
More than 60% of Lake County homeowners found themselves underinsured in the wake of that county's disastrous 2015 wildfire season, said state Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, attributing it to a roughly equal mix of homeowners trying to save money and insurance agents failing to disclose the need to cover inflation in rebuilding costs.
Sonoma County homeowners faced a struggle to find available contractors as well as soaring bids pushed by volatile construction costs, said Keith Woods, chief executive officer of the North Coast Builders Exchange, a trade group. Those costs that spiked to $400 to $500 per square foot for a custom home with medium-grade furnishings and $600 to $800 for high-end furnishings, such as flooring, windows and fixtures, he said.
Supervisor Susan Gorin, whose district lost 1,780 homes, including her own, said rebuilding costs came to $500 to $600 per square foot, up from $300 to $400 before the conflagration.
Some Kenwood and Glen Ellen residents opted to downsize their new homes with fewer luxury items, she said.
“I still haven't settled with my insurance company,” Gorin said.