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Time to say goodbye? In the wake of the Kincade fire, some in Sonoma County are saying yes

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Erica Gelsey is reminded of the 2017 Tubbs fire with every breath she takes. Trapped two years ago for more than an hour behind a wall of flames near her Santa Rosa home, just west of Fountaingrove Parkway, she suffered burns to her legs, her mouth and sinuses.

She escaped in a Lexus driven by a man who, unable to see in the thick smoke, had backed his car into her — luckily at a low speed.

Lingering damage to her gums led Gelsey, who now lives in Rincon Valley, to have four teeth extracted in October. Surgery to pull a fifth tooth was postponed by the arrival of the Kincade fire, which didn’t torch her home.

It did, however, push her closer to a momentous decision.

Nagged by wildfire-related health issues and concerned about her 13-year-old daughter who is, like her mother, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder triggered by another inferno, Gelsey is looking at leaving Sonoma County — and California altogether.

She appears to have plenty of company in the wake of both the largest wildfire and mass evacuation in county history.

While the Tubbs fire took a higher toll than the Kincade, the latter disaster made itself immediately felt to more people across the county. Firefighters believed that blaze, in its most threatening moments, might scythe down homes and towns from the Mayacamas Mountains on the county’s eastern border to the coast 30 miles away. Healdsburg, Windsor, Larkfield, the northeastern outskirts of Santa Rosa — again — and even Guerneville and Bodega Bay were in danger of being wiped off the map, according to fire officials and Sheriff Mark Essick, who last month ordered the largest mass evacuation in county history, displacing nearly 4 out of every 10 residents.

Amid it all, the power was out for even more of the county, part of PG&E’s move to curb fire risk tied to failing, wind-battered equipment.

These hardships, each compounding the other, brought many residents to a kind of critical mass, or much closer to it, at least — “one more and I’m done,” said Bob Hunnicut, a retiree in Rincon Valley — a tipping point past which the beauty and blessings of this area, this state, are outweighed by the chronic danger, inconvenience and anxiety. “The new abnormal,” is how former Gov. Jerry Brown described it.

Perennial threat of wildfires

From retirees to young families, from folks who lost a house to those who never lost power and weren’t even asked to evacuate, the yearly siege is wearing people down, as we learned in interviews and email exchanges with more than 20  area residents.

“We already have the place listed,” said Bob from Larkfield-Wikiup, who preferred not to give his last name. “Current plan is to move north to Washington, or even Vancouver, Canada.”

Many of those who say they are leaving or thinking hard about it described the perennial wildfire threat — and the attendant pains-in-the-butt of blackouts, evacuations and bad air — as the crowning insult, the issue that finally has forced their hand. After fires, however, they were quick to catalog the county’s other problems, including homelessness, high cost of living and lack of affordable housing, to name a few.

Michelle from St. Helena, who preferred not to give her last name because her employer doesn’t know she’s leaving, will be moving with her husband to Boise, Idaho, in the next three to six months.

Between “astronomical” costs for housing, food and utilities, as well as the increased stress and disruption of blackouts and evacuations, living in California is “not sustainable,” said Michele, who added that she knows six other couples or families who are leaving the state in the next six months.

No place is completely safe, pointed out a reader named J.C., who added that she’d leave in a heartbeat “if only I didn’t have pets or a husband who has a good job here with the county. If only I didn’t have elderly parents” in love with the area. “If only all my friends would move with me so I wouldn’t have to feel lonely in a new place.”

The truth, she concluded, is that the world she knew as a child growing up in Sonoma County “was an illusion,” and the world she knows here now is “a nightmare of instability.”

Some are already gone

Andrew Erwin and his wife, both born and raised in Santa Rosa, aren’t just planning to leave. They’re already gone.

Erwin always loved autumn in Sonoma County. Now, he said, “when it’s October and the wind picks up, it puts everyone on edge.”

Two months after the Tubbs fire, they visited family in Ohio. During that holiday trip, they decided to put their Santa Rosa home on the market. In July, they moved to a suburb of Cincinnati, where they live on half an acre in a house more than twice the size of their old one.

As they went through the process of selling their home here, Erwin said, “every loan officer we met told us we were not unusual” — that a lot of people were leaving. In the year after the fires, Sonoma County lost more than 3,000 residents, according to the Census Bureau, amounting to the sharpest annual decline in a generation and possibly the most significant drop since records were kept going back to 1850.

Much of that exodus was tied to the loss of housing stock: 5,334 homes burned countywide in 2017, mostly in the Tubbs fire, which destroyed 5 percent of Santa Rosa’s housing stock.

While it claimed far fewer houses, the Kincade fire is likely to accelerate the exodus.

The pattern has raised alarm among local officials.

Of course it’s alarming, agreed Sonoma County Board of Supervisors Chairman David Rabbitt, “when people are leaving because they can’t afford to live here, or because the future doesn’t look as bright here as it does someplace else,”

The problem transcends both wildfires and Sonoma County, he said. The bigger issue, plaguing the entire Bay Area, is “cost of living, cost of housing and where the jobs are located, with respect to where the affordable housing is.”

On the local level, Rabbitt said, “we need to make sure the housing issue is front and center, and ask ourselves: What are we doing to add to housing costs?” — a reference to local governments in the county that have adopted more stringent building regulations and codes over the years.

That’s not how they roll in Ohio, which is one of the reasons the Erwins are loving their new home.

“Every time I go out to dinner,” he said, “I look at the check and think, ‘Where’s the other half?’ ”

“We wish all our friends in Santa Rosa the best,” Erwin said, “and pray the last few months are not the ‘new normal’ for them.”

Choosing ‘positive action’

Carrie Brown is an author, artist, caterer and proprietor of Jimtown Store in the Alexander Valley, renowned for its world-class wines. In the days during and after the Kincade fire, she also was a grief counselor.

“We’ve had people coming in here in tears, people who lost homes, who lost everything,” she said.

While she gets why some people would find themselves wanting to move, Brown isn’t going anywhere. She refuses to accept the current state of affairs as the “new normal.”

“I’m a native Californian,” she said. “I love our state, I love this community, and I’m not giving up. I choose hope. I choose positive action and resistance. This is a call to arms.”

That call, as she hears it, is a summons to ditch PG&E in favor of smaller, community operated, utility-busting microgrids, and to lean more heavily on renewable sources of energy, such as solar.

But that’s a campaign that will take years, if not decades, to play out. Some people can’t wait that long for the situation to improve.

Frances Kern is 81 and in good health. But she found those six days in late October without power “incredibly stressful and exhausting.”

By the end of the most recent PG&E blackout, Kern, who lives in the retirement community of Oakmont Village, said she was down to eating soup and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. She slept poorly, awakened by constant alerts from PG&E and law enforcement agencies.

The annual wildfire drama will result in Californians leaving the state “in droves,” she predicted. Were it not for her age, she said, “I would be among the first to go.”

“Is this the way I want to spend every October,” asked the recently retired John Hirsekorn of Rincon Valley, “wondering if my house is going to burn down?”

“If it continues and PG&E doesn’t get its act together, then, no, I don’t want to do this every year.”

He might consider following the example of Sebastopol’s Rocky Daniels, who coined the term “firebird.” Similar to “snowbirds,” retirees who migrate south from New England to escape cold, firebirds leave the Golden State to escape the flames.

After putting his valuables in storage, said Daniels, in a brief phone interview from Mexico, where he’s spent the past few fire seasons, “you grab the cat and leave the country until November.”

“If you’re retired and don’t want to entirely uproot your life,” he said, “being a firebird makes perfect sense.”

Fires weakening resilience

After his Larkfield-Wikiup house burned in the Tubbs fire, Santa Rosa engineer Francois Piccin became a block captain. He poured his energy into helping his neighbors rebuild.

His focus and optimism went missing as the Kincade fire bore down on his burned lot, threatening to scorch it a second time. Two weeks before the blaze, he’d signed a contract with his builder. As the inferno churned south, “I was really reconsidering,” he said. He shared with his wife, Christine, that he didn’t know if he could feel safe again, in that place.

Most people bounce back after surviving a wildfire, said Laura Strom, a Santa Rosa marriage and family therapist. “But it affects their resilience.” When the threat presents itself again, and again, “it can really knock some people off their center.”

It’s “absolutely understandable,” she said, that they might find it imperative to relocate, to “go where they feel safe.”

“If you really don’t feel safe here, then the right thing to do is to leave,” Strom said.

Even after firefighters had turned back the Kincade’s flames and the danger had passed, Piccin was wracked with conflict, unsure of whether to rebuild on the site of his old home.

By the evening of Friday, Nov. 1, “I was really a wreck,” he said, to the point that he could barely make conversation with his wife.

But during his sleep that night, he dreamed of “walking in my future house” on Wikiup Drive. In the dream he dwelt on the fire safety features his new home would include: stucco walls, metal roof, no attic, no vents through which embers might intrude.

Piccin woke up happy, for the first time in days, having arrived at a decision in the night. His sense of safety was restored.

For others, that sense of safety remains elusive.

After the Tubbs fire, Liz Baughman bought a 19-foot trailer so she can “get out of Dodge” when the need arises. An alternative health practitioner in Santa Rosa, she is also a self-described triple Aquarian. “I don’t like to be caught in a corner,” she said.

“I’ve always loved Sonoma County,” said Baughman, a hiker and equestrian. “I don’t love it anymore. I’m afraid.”

She is 65 and worried about growing old here. “I don’t see myself staying here long-term,” she said.

“We live in a beautiful place. But what good is paradise if you can’t relax?”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Ausmurph88.

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