This month’s wildfires in Northern and Southern California have been the deadliest in state history, killing more than 70 people and obliterating an area five times the size of the District.
Given the growing frequency of such events, the decision to allow people to rebuild is controversial. Some think that rebuilding puts an unfair burden on taxpayers and insurance policyholders — particularly those not living in fire-prone areas — to shoulder the reconstruction costs.
State and local officials largely side with homeowners who want to rebuild. The state has clamped down on insurers that want to raise rates or drop homeowners seeking to rebuild. And local officials have expedited the building permit process, clearing the way for reconstruction.
For people who have rebuilt, or who are in the process of doing so, the new fires conjure not only scary reminders, but second thoughts about whether they made the right decision in opting to return.
Still, many are determined to see their communities rise from the ashes, saying: Where else would we go?
“You’re going to go through so many emotions, from the beginning all the way to the end, even when you get back in your home,” Jones said she would tell her relative. “You just kind of have to dig inside yourself and be strong, and be patient, and just know that you’re going to get through it.”
In early September, Jones and her husband settled into their new manufactured home in the Rancho Monserate Country Club, which was destroyed last year. At about 1,500 square feet, it’s a bit larger, with an additional bedroom.
Some people in Jones’s community were afraid to go back. But most have rebuilt.
For Jones’s neighbor Richard Schneider, the loss that cut deepest was his library. The retired professor of English literature, an expert in Henry David Thoreau, had amassed a trove of specialty texts, including books he had written. Individual books might be repurchased, but the collection is irreplaceable.
When he and his wife rebuilt their manufactured home, they made a few changes: They added a bedroom, traded carpet for laminate flooring and added an island to their more open kitchen. But they kept their possessions to a minimum.
“Simplify, simplify,” he said, citing Thoreau’s perhaps most-known quote.
Starting over after a wildfire is far from simple. Yes, there’s the recognition that the most precious things — collectibles, heirlooms, photos, souvenirs — can never be replaced. And, yes, there’s a sense of excitement in building a new home. But dealing with the trauma of the losses while reconstructing a home, neighborhood and community nearly from scratch can be emotionally daunting and overwhelming, residents say.
Building a better home
Last year in Santa Rosa, as chunky embers fell around her car, and houses caught fire as she was evacuating, Tricia Woods, 47, was convinced that she’d be returning to her Northern California community.
“It’s still not in my head right now that my house is burning down — right now — even though it was,” she said, describing the cognitive dissonance she felt as she was fleeing with her three children.
A year later, construction is well underway on her do-over home in Coffey Park, a residential neighborhood in northern Santa Rosa where more than 1,200 homes were burned.
It’s been a bittersweet journey. She lost everything inside. She was underinsured. But everyone was safe.
Woods said she views the rebuilding as an opportunity to create not exactly a dream home, but a better home for where she is now in life.
“I’m a silver-lining girl,” she said during a break between classes at the school where she teaches.
A year after the Tubbs Fire, which together with the other Northern California fires in fall 2017 killed 44 people and caused billions of dollars in damage across multiple counties, many lots in Santa Rosa are empty. A handful of houses have been rebuilt, and some, like Woods’s, are somewhere in between.
People who decided to rebuild face several common challenges. A labor and material shortage. Confusion about debris removal. An increase in material costs because of tariffs. Some insurance companies no longer providing coverage. And a loss so widespread, many who would have been in a position to help with rebuilding efforts — architects, lawyers — were themselves affected, causing still more delays.
Mike Behler, owner of Behler Construction in Santa Rosa, said a series of updated fire-safety building codes were enacted several years ago, and there have been no new codes in these fires’ aftermath.
In wildlife-urban interface zones, which are in rural areas of Sonoma County, homes use tempered glass, fire-resistant siding and decking, sprinklers, gutter covers to keep leaves out and, in some cases, water storage, he said.
Behler said he’s also observed people making new homes more fire-resistant on their own — using plaster and metal instead of wood, for example.
“All the houses will definitely have upgraded systems,” he said.
A home for tomorrow
For 12 years, Chris Keys, 43, was homeless, battling a drug addiction. In 2017, he was healthy, married, employed, a father of three, and living in the upper-middle-class neighborhood of Fountaingrove, east of Coffey Park. When he got word his house had burned, he said he thought, “Here we go again.”
He moved his family into his office for a few nights. Eventually they resettled in a rental.
When he started thinking about rebuilding, he froze. He’d never designed a house, and it was the last thing he wanted to do, under the circumstances. His wife was even less interested: “[She]would tell you, ‘Just put a roof up and four walls and let us move in,’ ” he said.
That echoes what Keith Woods, chief executive officer of the North Coast Builders Exchange, a trade group, said: When he speaks to groups, he asks people to raise their hands if they’ve ever built a house from the ground up. Not picking floors from one of several options in a plan home, but working out every single detail, every step of the way.
“I’m going to say less than 1 percent have been through that,” Keith Woods (no relation to Tricia Woods) said. The huge learning curve, paired with the emotional damage and the uncertainty — about timelines, budgets, regulations — make building a house after a fire that much harder.
Keys asked an architect friend for the blueprint to his own house, which Keys liked, and a list of suggested tweaks. His new house, in the early stages of construction, will have four bedrooms (same as before) and roughly the same size: about 2,900 square feet.
The previous house, built in the 1970s, had a step-down living room, but the new ground floor will be all on one level. They will move the laundry room upstairs, expand a half-bath into a full bath and add a large porch, because his wife always wants a Southern-style veranda.
The biggest change is adding a one-bedroom unit of about 600 square feet, which might bring rental income, house any of their aging parents or serve as lodging for their autistic son one day.
“They incentivized it to the point where you’d be kind of stupid not to do it,” he said of the extra unit.
Every decision Keys and his wife, Sara, made was with an eye to the home’s resale value.
“We’re choosing to look into the future, kind of like what a city council would do with a general plan for the city. I’m trying to find out what’s going to be standard in 20 years. And that’s where we’re spending our resources.”
There was one exception. “The master bathroom was the only thing we decided to be super-selfish on. Because we need that,” he said. With three children, the bathroom was “the only place we get some alone time.” They splurged on a double Jacuzzi tub and installed a rain forest shower head.
Financially, they are making sacrifices.
They bought their old house on an 8,900-square-foot lot for $575,000 in May 2015. They used insurance funds — $485,000 for the house and $318,000 of their contents — for the rebuilding. Keys said they’ll fill the inside over time.
Speaking about the loss as he faced his now-empty lot, the sun shining on a fall afternoon, Keys said the hardest part has been “the emotional aspect. Trying to recover from something like this, there are no silver linings that are silver enough. And I’ve been homeless, on the streets. . . . I would go months at a time without anybody knowing my name.”
Woods, the trade group leader, said less than 5 percent of people will rebuild the home they lost.
But for those who do, he said: “Now is their chance to upgrade that kitchen, add a bath, make a game room.”
People who bought properties decades ago now want to age in place, so they’re modifying their floor plans to ditch the second story, he said.
Plan homes are costing roughly $250 per square foot, he said, while custom homes are costing $400 to $500 per square foot or more — with prices shooting up for luxury features.
Ray Willett, principal of TBE Architecture of Santa Rosa, a firm that is rebuilding nine homes lost in the fires, said people want “smaller, more efficient” houses.
“It’s trending down,” in terms of square footage, he said. People are also looking to “create an opportunity for income,” he said, such as with accessory rental units.
Stylistically, “funky Tudor styles” are going away, and he’s seeing more interest in Eichler looks.
Tricia Woods, a seventh-grade teacher, sat her children down after the fire and asked them what they wanted in a new house.
Her oldest, a teenager with a foot out the door, said he didn’t care.
Her middle son, 15, answered: a wardrobe instead of a closet.
“I’m like, it still takes up the same amount of space, kid,” she said with a chuckle.
And her daughter, 13, wanted a secret Murphy door that looks like a bookcase, which connects to her mother’s bedroom. A reflection, Woods said, of her fear and insecurity since the fire.
For Woods, too, the rebuild has been a chance to identify what matters to her now.
“I designed it for me,” she said. “This is where I plan to live.”
An entertainer who loves to cook, she knew immediately that the kitchen would be her focus. She chose Himalayan Moon quartz counters, off-white with flecks of beige and gray. There will be a large island with a raised bar and a window above the kitchen sink, so she can look into the yard when she’s washing vegetables or preparing one of her favorites, polenta with sugo.
She tweaked the facade, opting for a Craftsman look — a long desired upgrade from the “very boring” tract home with wood siding and “no architectural detail” she had before.
The rest of the new house will closely resemble the old: four bedrooms, 2½ baths. She added 400 square feet by pushing out a wall, because it cost the same as indenting it.
The plan was to include an outdoor room in the back, but that’s on hold until she can afford it.
She bought her old house in 2015 for $512,000, and it is costing $756,000 to rebuild. “And that’s not including the lot,” Woods said.
She’s financing the first phase with a $50,000 loan from her IRA and a $200,000 insurance settlement for the contents of the burned house. She is still waiting for funds for the burned structure, to finish the project.
Like Keys, she’s adding a front porch.
After knocking on neighbors’ doors the night their lives changed and banding together in the next chapter, they want to keep in better touch.
“So many of us put front porches on our homes. None of the houses used to have front porches,” Woods said.