Rebuilding Sonoma County: Slow rebuild, change afoot in Fountaingrove

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Special coverage

This story is part of a monthly series in 2018 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 here

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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

The rebuilding effort in Fountaingrove continues to lag other areas devastated by the October wildfires, hampered as it is by high rebuilding costs, wider gaps in insurance for many homes, and nagging questions about the city’s infrastructure in the area.

The hillside area in northeast Santa Rosa lost more than 1,400 homes in the Tubbs fire.

After a sluggish start, the number of building applications and homes under construction is on the rise as the summer construction season gets into full swing.

The total number of permit applications in July more than doubled from the previous month, increasing from 106 to 245, a 131 percent jump. But that represents just 29 percent of the total rebuilds in the city.

The number of permits issued is up sharply, too, increasing 49 percent to 106. But that’s just 20 percent of the homes permits issued for rebuilds in the city.

The number of homes actually under construction is up by 64 percent, but it’s on a small base. Just 72 homes are under construction in the area, 18 percent of the total rebuilds in the city, and 5 percent of the homes lost in the area.

None have been completed.

Building with hazards in mind

Some of those who are choosing to rebuild in Fountaingrove are doing so with fire-resistant building techniques and materials.

Anu Shah and his wife and two teenagers lost their home on Garden View Circle, after leaving most of their belongings behind as they fled. Now they’re planning to rebuild their home not out of wood but of insulated concrete.

Shah grew up in India where he said 99 percent of the buildings are made of concrete, and so the idea of rebuilding his destroyed home with concrete was not foreign to him.

The wastewater engineer said he was drawn also to the energy efficiency offered by concrete construction.

The walls of Shah’s new 3,000-square-foot home will be built with what is known as insulated concrete forms. ICF blocks are like large hollow Legos filled with concrete while it cures.

But unlike traditional wooden forms, which are typically removed once the concrete hardens, IFC forms remain in place afterward to provide insulation and protection for the concrete. Siding or stucco can then be applied directly to the walls.

In Shah’s case, his home will be covered with a fire-resistant stucco to which fire-resistant paint will be applied. He’s been told the house is designed to survive for nine hours in a fire.

City planning officials, who don’t have a lot of experience with approving plans for such homes, had a long list of questions for Shah and his architect, he said.

“It took quite a bit of effort to get those 70 questions answered,” Shah said.

But city staff eventually approved Shah’s building permit, and his homeowners association approved the design as well, he said.

Before deciding on the building technique, Shah said he checked out a number of other examples of homes under construction and was pleased with what he saw.

“There are enough examples of local ICF permitted structures and that kind of gave us the confidence to move forward with this technology,” he said.

Dan Schoenfeld, of Net Zero Disaster Resistant Structures, said it only makes sense for people who’ve gone through such a disaster to rethink how they go about rebuilding in such a high fire hazard zone, ravaged by large wildfires twice in the past five decades.

Special coverage

This story is part of a monthly series in 2018 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 here

_____

Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

Schoenfeld said he has several homeowners planning to rebuild in the area using this technique, more common in other parts of the world.

“We’re not just trying to push our projects,” he said. “This is for the community’s sake.”

Landscape changing for homes

There are so many homeowners who are taking the opportunity to rebuild their homes in a different way that the area will likely have a changed housing landscape.

“Fountaingrove is going to look totally different,” said Carmen Kilcullen, the head of the Fountaingrove II architectural review committee. “Nobody wants a Tudor anymore.”

In addition to concrete homes, the committee has approved or is considering more modern, metallic homes, partially prefabricated homes, as well as homes that are one story instead of two, as people reconsider whether they want to climb so many stairs, Kilcullen said.

The committee has rules that require new homes to be compatible with the neighborhood, but those are a little hard to enforce when the neighborhood has burned down.

“What does that even mean, especially when we have to build a whole new community?” Kilcullen said.

Replacing burned fire station

Work is underway to build a temporary fire station in Fountaingrove, and to rethink where the permanent one should go.

The city is spending about $1 million to build a temporary fire station on the site of the former station on Parker Hill Road, which burned to the ground in the Tubbs fire.

It’ll be a large modular building for fire crews with a tent next to it to cover Engine 5. Work should be done by next month.

The destruction of the new $4 million station at Newgate Court, which was completed in 2015, has caused city officials to explore other possible sites for a permanent station in Fountaingrove.

Call volume is higher near the commercial centers and retirement communities about a mile west of the former station, so officials are considering whether that would make more sense for a new, larger station.

The Newgate Court station, which was tucked onto the site occupied by a large city water tank, was always a little small for the department’s needs, Fire Chief Tony Gossner said.

But since a new fire station is also being considered for Rincon Valley, it’s possible that station could serve the east side of Fountaingrove, allowing Station 5 to slide west without impacting response times, he told the City Council.

Perplexing water system

The water supply problems that firefighters encountered in Fountaingrove during the Tubbs fire are getting a closer look by the city after The Press Democrat asked for details about the system’s performance.

A preliminary look at the city’s water supply system in the area found that of the 10 tanks that provide the area with up to 7.8 million gallons of water for household use and firefighting, one was out of commission for seismic retrofitting, and another had limited capacity because of seismic safety concerns.

In addition, the way the city replenishes the tanks may have contributed to diminished volume and pressure problems amid the firefight.

The unrestricted release of water from burning homes and businesses is believed to be at the root of the problem that firefighters experienced in battling the fire.

Historically, to take advantage of cheap nighttime electricity rates and meet health standards for drinking water, the city has allowed the water levels in the tanks to drop to as low as one third of capacity before they are replenished overnight. That means they may have been at their lowest levels precisely when the Tubbs fire erupted in October.

“This is a very complex problem to fully understand,” Ben Horenstein, director of Santa Rosa Water, told The Press Democrat for a story published last Sunday. “The city is working to understand it and is planning to share it with the public and the press and, of course, the council. We are still in the investigative process.”

The city’s report is due out in early August.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.

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