Earlier this week, there were eight excavators at work in the Coffey Park neighborhood, clearing fire debris and scraping the top layer of ash and soil away to remove any potentially toxic materials.
“They’ve been working so hard. I was here on a Sunday in the rain and they were working,” said Lilia Gonzalez, who brought donuts out to the workers who cleared her lot.
In Santa Rosa, the county seat of Sonoma County, her subdivision was hardest hit, losing 1,300 homes after the fire broke out Oct. 9. It was one of several fires touched off by fierce winds that state fire officials are now calling the Northern California firestorm. By the time all were extinguished three weeks later, seven counties were affected, 42 people dead and 9,000 buildings destroyed.
Nearly 400 miles south in Ventura, county seat of Ventura County, some 427 homes and other structures have been lost, part of the 921 structures claimed by the Thomas fire so far. Two people, including one firefighter, have died.
The National Weather Service is predicting high winds over the weekend that could push the flames towards Santa Barbara, potentially putting as many as 20,000 people and 18,000 buildings worth billions at risk.
Ten weeks after the embers in the wine country had cooled, recovery efforts in Santa Rosa provide a look at what the southern part of the state may face once firefighters gain the upper hand in the battle.
In the wine country of Napa and Sonoma counties, some homeowners are finding themselves underinsured and worry they will not be able to afford to rebuild. Even those with sufficient insurance expect it to be two years or more before they can once again reclaim their neighborhoods.
Clearing work is well underway. The long waits to simply get land cleared that characterized some previous fires are not in evidence in Sonoma County, where the Army Corps of Engineers has already cleaned hundreds of lots.
The speed at which broken, burned piles of rubble are turning into buildable lots is a sad side effect of the past few years’ disasters, said Mark Sektnan, vice president for the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America.
The hurdles are many. Stapled to a stake pounded in front of each burned lot is a laminated 8.5-by-11-inch card with the home’s address and the six steps that must be accomplished before it’s ready for rebuilding.
First, the site must be documented. Then a survey must be done to ensure there was no asbestos in the home that might contaminate the surrounding area when the site is cleared. Those sites must be specially handled.
The removal process itself is an enormous undertaking. It’s been made easier because the Army Corps of Engineers is coordinating removal for all homeowners who agree to the process. The majority of homeowners have signed up, said Santa Rosa Vice Mayor Jack Tibbetts.
Workers first lay out thick plastic sheeting to cover the sidewalk and roadway to keep potentially toxic material in the ash from contaminating the area. Large items are picked up with surprising delicacy by excavators and placed in waiting dump trucks. Concrete is removed separately because it can be broken up and reused in other construction.
“Some of these houses will take up to 20 trucks to remove everything,” said Tibbetts.
The clearing process usually takes two to three days. At the end, the top few inches of soil are scraped off to remove any possible contaminates. Then a green slurry that contains fast-growing grass seed is sprayed across it to help prevent erosion. Finally the lot is ringed with straw berms to protect streets and drains from silty run off.
Officials hope most lots will be fully cleared by January. While they wait, homeowners are meeting with their insurance companies to determine how much money their policies will pay out and when they can start to rebuild.
For renters, the situation is more dire. They were eligible for some Federal Emergency Management Agency grants but most had no renters insurance and so lost everything. Rents in the county have gone up 36% since the fire, Tibbetts said.
A market already tight due to the pressure of well-paid tech workers moving into the area has become impossible. “We did a survey and our vacancy rate is below zero. There’s just nothing available anywhere,” he said.
For those who own and plan to rebuilt, Santa Rosa plans to expedite the permitting process. But it doesn’t expect the first permits to come in for at least a month and probably much longer, said Tibbetts.
When they do get that far, construction workers are expected to be in short supply.
There were labor shortages before the fire due to the red-hot real estate market in Silicon Valley “and now they’re only going to be worse. And a lot of the people who do this sort of work are also busy in Texas and Florida” after the storms there, said Sektnan.
With rising housing and construction prices in California, many worry insurance won’t cover what it will cost to rebuild their home. No one yet knows what the cost per square foot to rebuild will be.
“We’ve heard numbers anywhere from $400 to $800 per square foot but the reality is no one knows yet, it’s too early,” Sektnan said.
Santa Rosa proactively added language to its permitting code to make it clear that homeowners could build smaller than their original home if they wanted to. “That way, no one has to leave just because they don’t have enough money to rebuild exactly” what they had before, said Tibbetts.
Some people are too heartbroken to rebuild, he said. But for others, it’s simply an issue of time. “For people who are in their 70s or 80s, they say ‘If it’s going to take me five years to rebuild, well, I don’t have five years to wait,’ so they’re selling now,” he said.
Others are eager to return but face an uphill battle to rebuild.
A Santa Rosa law firm, Friedemann Goldberg, found that the vast majority of the fire victims whose policies it examined were underinsured either for structure or personal property.
Cassie Taaning-Trotter and her husband owned a home in Redwood Valley, north of Santa Rosa. Their three acres had a vista of a nearby vineyard and included two ponds that were home to a colony of thousands of chorus frogs that serenaded them in the winter.
Walking the cleared ground that once held her house, Taaning-Trotter names every tree and describes her garden, the paths and the flowers that surrounded it. She choked back tears as she pulled up photos of her light-filled home on her phone.
Last year, the fire insurance rates doubled on their property so she went shopping around for another policy. An agent new to insurance found her one that seemed more reasonable but that Taaning-Trotter believed still provide her with full coverage.
To her horror, when she began to get quotes on what it would cost to replace their home, they were double what their insurance payout was.
“She did not do due diligence. So we’re suing. We just have to wait to see how it goes,” she said.
Until that is settled, she and her husband and their dogs are living in a 350-square-foot cabin on her sister’s land up the road.
Looking out at the golden afternoon light as the sun began to set, she heard a single chorus frog begin to croak from a nearby clump of grass. “I thought they’d all died,” she said happily. “I missed them!”
SOURCE: USA TODAY