SANTA ROSA, Calif. — For the five years that Horacio Hernandez and Laura Gomez rented a two-bedroom home in this city's Coffey Park neighborhood, they'd felt reassured by the fact that there was a fire hydrant on their corner and a fire station less than a mile away.
When they left their home early Monday with the rest of the neighborhood amid high winds and smoke swirling through the air, they thought it was just a precautionary evacuation. On their way out the door, they grabbed their rental agreement and not much else.
Like most of the homes in the neighborhood, theirs is now reduced to debris.
Coffey Park was once a tightknit and tightly packed portrait of the American Dream. It offered more-affordable housing in a county where the average home sells for $625,000 and a city where rents hover around $2,000 for a two-bedroom. For Hernandez and Gomez, it was the perfect spot for a couple who couldn't yet afford to buy a home; they had room to barbecue and host larger family celebrations, for $1,575 a month in rent.
Now the neighborhood resembles a war zone. Burned-out cars sit in driveways. Tubs and fireplaces are overturned, bathed in sooty roof tiles and fallen drywall — the ashes of everyday life. The people who once lived here are trying to figure out what’s next.
Hernandez and Gomez are temporarily staying in an overstuffed house about a mile away — Gomez’s mother’s home. It now has 10 people in it. The couple share a room with one twin bed where Gomez sleeps wrapped in Red Cross blankets. Her husband sleeps on the floor. The room is crowded with boxes of essentials they’ve collected from nearby shelters: toiletries, clothing, towels.
Gomez, a 31-year-old nonprofit worker, wants to stay at her mother’s place for a month or two or three to save up more of a cushion before they rent somewhere new. But Hernandez, a 39-year-old plumber, is eager to move somewhere more lasting.
“We are going to stay” in Santa Rosa, Hernandez said. “We are going to try to find a place to live.”
Over 10 days, the Northern California wildfires have consumed more than 200,000 acres — an area larger than the five boroughs of New York City combined. Many of the displaced are staying with relatives, with friends or in shelters. Soon they will be looking for longer-term housing. But where will they go?
Santa Rosa was experiencing a housing crunch before the fires blasted through. Vacancy rates were low, and local officials had been trying to fill some of the demand by allowing more "granny" units — small homes built in the back yards of larger houses.
On top of that, a natural disaster has suddenly left thousands of people homeless. Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey said the fires have destroyed 5 percent of the city’s housing stock and plenty more beyond the borders.
Coursey said he does not know how quickly the city will be able to rebuild, an effort that will depend heavily on federal and state funding. Firefighters are still battling the blazes. Debris will need to be removed. Plans will need to be drawn up. Permits and funding will need to be secured. Builders will need time to build.
In the meantime, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is asking that everyone who has been displaced by the fires register with the agency so that it can determine how much housing assistance is needed.
“The first option is to locate a place that’s close to where they lived before. That’s essential, but it’s not always possible,” Victor Inge, a FEMA spokesman, said Saturday outside an assistance center in downtown Santa Rosa.
County officials said it is unclear how long the shelters across the North Bay area will remain open. But Shirlee Zane, a member of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, said they will exist “for as long as this crisis occurs, and they’re going to need to stay open beyond that until we can house everybody.”
Zane, whose district includes areas that were affected by the fires, wants to speed up the building process to get displaced residents situated as quickly as possible.
“We’re going to need a really comprehensive strategy about not only getting people into transitional housing or temporary housing,” she said in an interview, “but then how are we going to build that permanent housing that’s also going to meet the needs of those people in the middle-class neighborhoods that lost their homes and our most vulnerable population, which continues to grow, which is people over the age of 65.”
Long before the fires, the nonprofit Petaluma People Services Center had been placing seniors in shared homes so that they are not living alone. In the past week, Executive Director Elece Hempel said the nonprofit has received 700 calls from people — some from as far away as Houston — offering temporary housing to those who are staying in shelters.
“People are saying: ‘You can stay for two days, or you can stay for a year,’ ” Hempel said. She estimated that about 100 people had been placed.
Many displaced residents are not entertaining plans to leave the area soon. One of the first things Tony Cohen did after evacuating his home in Mark West Meadows, just north of Santa Rosa’s city limits, was buy a tent. His home, which he bought for more than $1 million 12 years ago, is gone. But as soon as he is able to get back on the property, he intends to live there, even if he has to sleep in a $3,000 Tuff Shed from Home Depot and shower at a friend’s place nearby.
“I love that spot,” Cohen said of his property, which is surrounded by hiking trails. “I just want to reestablish it as my home as soon as I can, even without a building.”
Joshua Damron, 35, who had grown up in western Sonoma County, had long dreamed of living in Coffey Park, which he called "the nice, normal-people part of town." Damron had thought he would never be able to own a house in California. But when the economy tanked, he and his wife, Abby, had been saving up, and they bought a three-bedroom home on Mocha Lane for $375,000 in 2014. Since then, home prices in the neighborhood had reached half a million.
“It’s really safe. It’s a great place to raise a family,” Abby Damron said Thursday while sitting at a picnic table in the park where the couple’s three sons play once or twice a day. The park is still verdant and cheery, while their house across the street has been reduced to ash and debris.
The family of five is staying with Joshua’s parents about a mile west of Coffey Park. They plan to come back once they are able. In the meantime, his sons miss the family rituals that used to take place in the house, namely tinkering with their dad in the garage. Daniel, 5, recently asked when they were going to play in the garage again. Joshua didn’t know how to answer.
“When do we get to do those things our family did together?” Joshua wondered, adding that some of their family rituals can take place anywhere. “We can still do our stories around the dinner table, and we can still read books around the dinner table. We can still go for walks and do our family Bible time together. We can create stability in those areas.”
It will be a while before their family walks familiar terrain, though.
“We have to rebuild here. We have to help our neighbors rebuild here,” Joshua said, adding that he didn’t know how long it would take to rebuild a neighborhood where about 150 to 200 homes were lost.
“It was a cool neighborhood,” he said. “It is going to be a cool neighborhood.”