Rebuilding After a Wildfire, and Waiting for the Next One
Lawrence Boutte surveys his old neighborhood as he waits for his lot to be cleared. All photos by Stephen Loewinsohn
You can see hints of the destruction wrought by the North Bay wildfires from California's 101 highway. A blackened streak of burned-out forest, remnants of a lone structure that caught an unfortunate spark. Statewide, this year's wildfires burned more than 245,000 acres by the end of October, destroying 8,900 structures, and leaving at least 43 people dead. In terms of property damage, the Tubbs Fire that devastated Santa Rosa in Sonoma County was the most destructive wild blaze in California history, accounting for a huge share of the damage across the state—and almost half of the casualties. But those are just statistics.
You don't really get a sense of the vast devastation until you pull off the highway at Hopper Avenue and head west into Coffey Park. The suburban neighborhood, two miles from downtown Santa Rosa, was leveled by Tubbs, named after the street named after a man who owned a winery in the 1800s. About 1,500 homes were destroyed in the neighborhood. It looks like a bomb went off there, leaving behind streets and cul-de-sacs, an occasional chimney, and every single backyard barbecue. They stand like metallic sentries overlooking claims of ash.
When I visited on November 14, about two weeks after the fire was fully contained, residents were still picking through the gray remains where their homes once stood. One was Fred Hulac, 65, who for the past decade lived at a two-story home on Coffey Lane with his wife, Susi. She was the one who first sensed that something was amiss in the earliest hours of October 9.
“My wife heard a rumbling sound,” Hulac recalled of that night. “The trash cans had blown over and were being pushed down the street.”
Outside, he felt “bad, toxic, hot air,” and noticed that the streetlights had been blocked out by a black cloud. He retrieved the cans and went back inside, but when he looked out his window, he was struck by the sight of his neighbor's back deck. “That was unusual,” he said, “because we had a fence there." The wind had ripped it loose.
They packed up, but only with enough to last for a few days. “There are fire hydrants every three blocks, and a fire house that way, a fire house this way,” he said, pointing in either direction past the endless rubble. “We're a suburb, not in the forest, so we packed accordingly.” They took their computers, some clothes, their cats, and left the rest behind.
Stories like these are relatively common among the survivors sifting through their former residences. They speak of nighttime confusion and hectic evacuation, the strange places they've been staying since, long hours on the phone haggling with insurance companies, and, more existentially, their next move.
Clearing of the neighborhood has been underway for weeks, pieces of the ashen chaos slowly giving way to rectangles of fresh dirt. Owners had until November 13 to allow FEMA a “right of entry” for contractors hired by the US Army Corps of Engineers to clean their property. The relevant paperwork includes a spot for residents to list valuables like heirlooms or jewelry they might want workers to keep an eye out for. The odds of recovery are extremely unlikely.
“See how there's no glass,” one contract worker who wasn't authorized to speak to the press asked me. “That means the fire was over 5,000 degrees. There's nothing left.”
After crews remove concrete, brick, charred cars, and the dust of everything else, they strip off inches of dirt and sample the toxicity left behind. “Your refrigerator, your air-conditioner, anything with freon, it all burns to ash,” said Dr. Karen Relucio, a Napa County public health officer. (Her territory had its own share of horrific destruction.) “Some houses with older construction may even have asbestos in it.” If tests come back with toxins, bulldozers scrape another three-to-six inches, and test again, Relucio continued. If it’s clean, the rebuild can take place.
But should they? And how? That question is currently at the center of a heated debate surrounding the area, even if public sentiment is strongly in the pro camp. At least one local elected official has described the disaster as an opportunity to transform the neighborhood into a higher-density area, lifting restrictions that gave Coffey Park its classic suburban look and ostensibly offering owners a choice to re-build, or build even higher. The editorial board of the San Francisco Chronicle bolstered the idea, while one East Bay Express writer dubbed the potential move “Disaster YIMBYism.”
A big sticking point in any up-zoning plan is, well, it’s not necessarily something Coffey Park residents want. This week, a “pseudo” homeowners association powered by hundreds of former residents formed to guide the process. In various local news interviews, as well as my own, residents have generally said they want to rebuild—exactly the same as before. You could call it stubbornness, or reacting with pettiness to outsiders telling them what to do.
Or maybe they just chose to live there for a reason.
A question few seemed to be asking was whether or not the area should be rebuilt at all. As urban theorist Mike Davis has argued, rebuilding efforts ignore the larger issue of sprawl in an area known to burn. “You say fire, I say climate change, and we both ignore the financial and real-estate juggernaut that drives the suburbanisation of our increasingly inflammable wildlands,” he writes. “Land use patterns in California have long been insane but, with negligible opposition, they reproduce themselves like a flesh-eating virus.” (There's also evidently an endangered salamander to reckon with.)
“Rebuild,” insisted Joe Olson, a Coffey Park resident for five years, as he picked through his ash under a California state flag he'd recently planted. “I don't know another option. It doesn't make sense to walk away.”
When I visited, it was the fourth or fifth time Olson had been back to his old house to dig, more for peace of mind than anything. “You find things, but you're not going to keep them,” he said, grabbing a singed metal flask from the soot. “But you feel better knowing you looked.” He dropped the flask back into the ash.
Still, even in this desolate landscape, there were moments of hope. Fred Hulac and his wife Susi, for example, assumed everything in their house had been lost after fleeing. But in the weeks since the fire, a Facebook group was set up as an online “lost and found” for belongings that had been scattered by the wind. The couple have recovered over a dozen photos they figured were lost, including one from their wedding day, 33 years ago.
“We want to be a source of encouragement,” Hulac told me. “We have to realize that when our number is called, and when we take our last breath, we don't take any of these things with us.”
He went on to tell the story of his neighbor, who was out of town during the fires, but came back to sift through his ashes. “He screeched up in front and shouted, 'Where are my cars?' Hulac said. "He looked across the street, and there was his Lexus. It'd blown up.” Undeterred, the neighbor jumped back into his ash pile to rummage around.
“And after awhile he goes, 'Woo-hoo!'” recalled Hulac, a tear in his eye—of sadness and joy, of the ridiculousness of it all. “He pulled out his submachine gun, tossed it on the sidewalk, and screamed, 'I think it's still good!'”