Rebuilding Sonoma County: Pace of the rebuild after the 2017 wildfires accelerating in 2019

Special coverage

This story is part of a monthly series in 2019 chronicling the rebuilding efforts in Sonoma County's four fire zones: Coffey Park, Fountaingrove, the greater Mark West area and Sonoma Valley. Read all of the Rebuild North Bay coverage


The fire rebuild in Sonoma County is moving into a distinct new phase in 2019 as more homeowners and builders focus on getting the daunting task done.

For many, 2018 was a year of grief, paralysis and confusion. This year, they know, has to be different.

“People are saying, ‘For my own sanity, I have to make a decision and move on with my life,’?” said Brenda Christopherson, managing partner of Christopherson Builders in Santa Rosa.

It won’t be easy. But for many, looking back is being replaced by looking forward.

In Christopherson’s Rebuild and Design Center on West College Avenue, the subtle change is palpable. Maybe it’s the action, with so much going on, so many people in and out, so much to do.

“Since the first week of the year it’s been crazy busy. We’ve had a lot of new people come in. They want to make decisions and get started,” said Keith Christopherson, who owns the company with his wife, Brenda.

Attitudes are slightly different now, Brenda Christopherson noted. For a year, meeting with new clients meant listening to people grieve.

“People at first would break down. It was emotional. It was important for them to tell their story,” she said.

But in the last few months she has noticed they’re more businesslike, more realistic, finally able to make decisions. People who were in a frantic rush just to get a house built are starting to think about what details they want in their new home.

“It’s very exciting, to put more and more creative packages together for people,” Brenda Christopherson said.

The Christophersons have been builders in Sonoma County and beyond for 40 years. They estimate they built close to 20 percent of the houses in Fountaingrove, mostly custom homes. Every single one was destroyed in October 2017 by the Tubbs fire.

Joseph and Cristina Cuschieri lived in a Christopherson-built home on Parker Hill Road in Fountaingrove until the firestorm swept through. They are former Hewlett-Packard employees who have lived in Sonoma County for more than 30 years, first in Coffey Park and for the last 17 years on Parker Hill Road. The fire also claimed their Coffey Park home, which had been remodeled and was being used as a care facility for the elderly. Cristina’s two sisters also lost their Coffey Park homes, and more recently their nephew lost his home in the Camp fire that tore through Butte County.

They knew they wanted to rebuild with the same builder. When the new Christopherson home design they loved did not fit on their Parker Hill Road lot, Brenda Christopherson found a bigger lot for them nearby, and they’ve since bought two more. They’ll live on the bigger lot and the Christophersons will rebuild the other three for re-sale.

“It’s inspiring to see how the Coffey Park rebuild is blossoming. To see all the builders working there, even when it’s raining, is amazing. But this kind of activity isn’t happening so much in Fountaingrove. I’m hoping that building these three extra lots we purchased in Fountaingrove will stimulate other people to rebuild,” Joseph Cuschieri said.

The Christophersons don’t sugarcoat the problems ahead, which seem to fall into two main categories: Will builders have the workers and the skills to do the job?

Time is a critical factor, in part because insurance companies may stop paying monthly rent for their policyholders in October, only nine months away. Many fire victims are still paying the mortgage on their incinerated home and will not be financially able to also start paying rent.

In April, Keith Christopherson estimated that maybe 200 homes could be completed by the end of 2018. Only 114 made it. Now he’s estimating 1,000 to 1,500 people will be able to move into Santa Rosa homes this year. Those are big numbers but still far short of the more than 3,000 homes that Santa Rosa lost. Standing in the way of meeting these goals is mainly the tight labor force, he said.

“The real burden is lack of skilled workers. We don’t have the robust community of builders and trades that we used to have,” Keith Christopherson said.

Sonoma County doesn’t get a significant number of workers from Ukiah or Lake County, he said. Instead workers are coming from places like Antioch, Manteca and Fresno, clogging Highways 101 and 37 and Jameson Canyon Road in Napa. He wryly recalls a friend who once said that in Sonoma County “we live at the end of a cul de sac.”

The Christophersons said they also worry because they hear about construction and grading mistakes out there, foundations poured in the wrong places and poor workmanship. Fire victims tell about builders who abandoned them. Skilled subcontractors tell about not getting paid for 90 to 120 days, worrying about quality, walking off jobs for these reasons, leaving builders unable to finish.

“I worry about quality,” Keith Christopherson said. “I think it’s going to become a bigger issue.”

But mainly the Christophersons are optimistic about 2019, ticking off what they feel are the good signs.

More workers are coming. Builders who have made it this far are better equipped to succeed. Foundations are going in, always a morale booster. Clients who last year were confused and panicked are more grounded. They’ve begun making design choices, which is fun. More people are going to be moving in, so early rebuilders don’t feel so alone. People from elsewhere in the Bay Area are showing up to buy lots. Young people are getting into the trades. Building costs that have doubled in some cases seem to be stabilizing, although they’re “still dynamic,” Keith Christopherson said. The city and county permit departments have all hands on deck.

“I never thought I’d see that, but the city and county are doing a fabulous job,” Keith Christopherson said.

Architects, engineers and other front-end professionals are starting to slow down, after months of seven-day-and-night workweeks, as their clients move toward construction.

“It’s the porcupine coming through the pipeline,” Keith Christopherson said. “In the beginning people were in line competing for the attention of the professionals. Now we’re on the sticks and bricks side.”

“It will get done,” he added. And to keep things in perspective, he noted that businesses always wrestle with these challenges: good labor, superior quality, competitive prices.

He foresees two major opportunities that could come out of this misery.

He likes to think this might be Sonoma County’s time to address its housing problem.

“I’m trying to think beyond us. In 20 years we’ll be gone. Then what does it look like here?” he asked. “We’ve got to get some housing in this place.”

And he is inspired by the new leadership in the neighborhoods affected by the fires.

“There’s something about being battle conditioned. The crisis has encouraged them to step up and take the flag and be the standard bearer. I think that’s a benefit we’ll see a lot of now, leadership forged by this environment,” he said.

Joseph and Cristina Cuschieri are also positive about 2019.

“Last year was a year for getting everything together, dealing with insurance companies, trying to finalize payments and house designs. I feel this year is a year for growth,” Joseph Cuschieri said. “Last year we planted the seed. This year we’re going to see the plants rise from the ground. Life goes on.”

Special coverage

This story is part of a monthly series in 2019 chronicling the rebuilding efforts in Sonoma County's four fire zones: Coffey Park, Fountaingrove, the greater Mark West area and Sonoma Valley. Read all of the Rebuild North Bay coverage


UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.
Send a letter to the editor

Our Network

The Press Democrat
Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Sonoma County Gazette