Golis: A year on, still learning about the fires’ impacts

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We were out of town when it rained last week, but news of unseasonable rainfall became a surprising source of relief. At least, we thought, there might not be another fire.

A year ago, few would have worried about the possibility of a catastrophic wildfire sweeping through a suburban neighborhood, but our sensibilities are more tender now. We’ve smelled the smoke and seen the devastation. It was a year ago Tuesday that fires killed 24 people and incinerated 5,200 homes in Sonoma County.

This newspaper is publishing a remarkable series of retrospectives on the disaster. (These reports remind us why The Press Democrat won a Pulitzer Prize for its fire coverage.)

These are stories of heartbreak and hardship, courage and renewal. They also are stories about what we’ve learned and what we’re still learning.

People’s affection for the place they call home shines through in these reports. Again and again, fire victims talk about the rhythms of their neighborhood and all the things that made it special.

Then they talk about the intensity of the community’s compassion. In the days that followed the fires, everyone wanted to help in some way. Strangers from here and across the country sent money and clothes, organized fundraisers, lined up to volunteer.

And then there were the first responders — thousands of firefighters, utility workers, police officers and sheriff’s deputies — who became instant heroes. Signs popped up all over the county. “Thank you!”

Unfortunately, we’ve also learned in the past year that rebuilding will take more time than we first imagined.

The most encouraging stories are coming from the Coffey Park neighborhood of Santa Rosa, where construction is underway on about a third of the homes destroyed in the Tubbs fire.

But faced with the serial obstacles to rebuilding — insurance, design and engineering issues, securing permits, finding a contractor, the grim memories of that horrible night — many property owners remain uncertain about what to do next.

More than a few have decided to move on. No hard figures are available, but one back-of-the- envelope analysis suggests it might be as many as 7,000 people.

On a good day, the forecasts of local officials — we will build 25,000 homes in the next five years — always felt optimistic. Talking about construction on that scale only served to alarm the people and the organizations that worry most about traffic, sprawl and the other impacts of development.

While there exists a general consensus that more houses are needed to replace those that burned and to compensate for the housing shortage that existed before the fires, theory and practice are not the same thing.

The Board of Supervisors’ most ambitious housing initiative foundered after a year, a casualty of intense neighborhood opposition and a lawsuit that successfully challenged the county’s failure to analyze the environmental impacts.

After so many years in which housing was given the cold shoulder, local officials are determined to do better, but it remains that housing requires builders, lenders and consumers able to pay the price of admission. The last is no small matter if insurance is insufficient or your job doesn’t pay a salary commensurate with the cost of housing.

While there is something resembling a consensus that new home building should occur in downtown Santa Rosa, we’re still waiting for someone to step up and demonstrate to builders and lenders that there is a major market for housing in the city center — and not just housing for 25 or 50 families but housing for hundreds.

Meanwhile, we’ve also learned that local government budgets were hammered by the costs associated with responding to the disaster. Even after drawing down reserves, the Santa Rosa City Council last week was told it will need to cut current spending by $7 million and 50 positions. This was followed by a warning that the problem could grow worse if a November sales tax measure fails.

As we go forward, we will wrestle with other issues — how can we improve early warning systems, how can we make homes and neighborhoods more fire-resistant, how can we better coordinate the work of emergency agencies. This week’s retrospectives review in detail what went wrong and how we can be better prepared the next time.

All these initiatives and others respond to a simple reality: Devastating fires in California are becoming commonplace, and the old ways won’t be sufficient in the future. We know government could have been better prepared, but then we also know the ferocity of these fires surprised everyone.

It’s OK to acknowledge that the tasks ahead are daunting, so long as you know that doing nothing would be its own kind of disaster.

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.

You can send a letter to the editor at letters@pressdemocrat.com

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