“If you’ve ever known someone who built their home from scratch, you might have heard their stories about how tough it can be, and how the process can be miserable some of the time,” says Jeff Okrepkie, founder and board president of Coffey Strong, an advocacy group helping residents of Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park to navigate the rebuilding process.
Okrepkie is referring to life before the Tubbs fire, which raced through his neighborhood last October, destroying 1,350 homes. “Even in the best of circumstances, building a home from the ground up can take time and be full of frustration, and there are many people in Coffey Park who do not want to rebuild for those reasons. I’m seeing a lot of attrition as people decide to buy an existing home.”
Still, the rebuilding process for many homeowners is moving forward, depending on their circumstances. Other homeowners are on the fence, undecided or taking a wait-and-see approach.
Todd Walker was one of those fire survivors who wasted no time lining up a contractor to begin rebuilding the destroyed home on his rural property off Soda Canyon Road northeast of Napa. Construction is coming along so well that he and his wife are hoping to celebrate Thanksgiving in their newly rebuilt home.
“The day after the Atlas fire came through, I started drawing out a house idea and then showed it to a friend, Robert Estrada of Estrada Engineering, who’s an engineer-architect,” says Walker, owner of C-Line Express trucking. “My wife and I moved very quickly to line up a contractor, Brad Wagner of Wine Country Development, and we were the third permit issued in Napa County for a rebuild. There were scary stories going around about how high the price-per-square-foot would increase if we waited too long.”
The Walkers never had any doubts they would rebuild, but the new home is being created with wildfire safety in mind. “We’re putting on a steel roof and will maintain fire defensive spaces on the property. For the most part, our new home will have the same footprint, but the living space will be smaller,” says Walker. “The old house was just shy of 2,600 square feet, and the new house will be 1,800 square feet, but will include a large wrap-around porch because we live more outside than we do inside.”
Walker says they were “definitely underinsured” to rebuild the main house and other structures on the property that were also destroyed. “We will pay to rebuild the guest house out of our own pocket.”
The Walkers’ property is under Napa County jurisdiction, and Walker says the county has been easy to work with. “They are fair in their permit fees, and they are letting us ‘grandfather’ in some of what we had before. I was lucky to have a friend, Hugh Linn of RSA+ who knows all the construction and permitting lingo and he went with me to the county and walked me through the whole process. Pretty much everyone at the county has the same goal—to get fire survivors back on their feet as fast as possible.”
Realtor Cynthia Turnbow with Napa’s Coldwell Banker Brokers of the Valley discovered that fire survivors over the age of 70, particularly those who were the original owner of the house they lost, are much more emotional about moving forward. “They come to the conclusion they just don’t want to have to give up their time for a rebuild.”
Before the Atlas fire, Turnbow had shown some smaller homes to an older couple that had lived in a custom two-story home in the Silverado neighborhood for a long time. “They didn’t want to leave it, but the gentleman was having more difficulty getting up and down stairs. I’d taken them through a single-level home for sale down the hill from their place, but they said it was too small to hold all their belongings. So when their big house burned down and they lost everything, they were excited and enthused to move into a smaller single-story after all. Mother Nature downsized for them.”
Fire lots in Napa that came onto the market in the winter months languished with few buyers, says Turnbow, but by May interest had picked up. In mid-summer some fire lots located along such places as Soda Canyon Road and Atlas Peak Road were listed between $500,000 to $800,000. One fire lot on Atlas Peak Road had a price tag of $1.5 million. Turnbow is the agent for a fire lot on Monticello Road that first went on the market for $873,000. In late July, the asking price was reduced to $624,000.
“The fire damage in the Atlas Peak area was spotty, with one house destroyed and another nearby unharmed, and a large number of these fire lots are country properties,” adds Turnbow.
Pedroza says that while there was a large fire impact in the Silverado neighborhood, many of the lost homes were on rural properties. “Along places like Soda Canyon Road, many people who bought their home 30 or 40 years ago maybe didn’t have the best insurance, and now they are also dealing with septic issues and damaged private roads and bridges.
“There were destroyed homes on properties in the Mt. Veeder area with curving, narrow private roads,” he says. “Now, a few of those property owners are also facing another complication—some part of their private road does not confirm to the required degree of slope. It’s important that the county walk these property owners through what the rebuild will mean to them, and discuss where we may be able to grant exemptions on things on certain problem areas such as the slope of their roads.”
Bobby Bhowmik, a research and development manager with Keysight Technologies, lost his Fountaingrove home in the Tubbs fire. When interviewed 10 months after the disaster, Bhowmik had not yet started the rebuild process.
“I’ve talked to friends and colleagues in a similar situation,” he says. “There’s not a big supply of local contractors and most of them you talk to really can’t commit to a not-to-exceed cost, or even a concrete schedule. Even they don’t seem to know for sure what it will end up costing. Furthermore, how do you know how reliable the builders are and who can be trusted with the job? Is the builder credible and will the company finish the job? A nightmare scenario would be getting halfway through the construction with one builder and then having and then having to scramble to look for someone else to finish the job.”
Bhowmik’s home, which he purchased five years ago, was constructed in 2005. “If we were to rebuild, it would likely be in the ballpark of $1.6 million. And in general, I believe the rebuilt homes will probably be made better than the original homes.”
When Bhowmik bought the Fountaingrove home, the possibility of wildfire was never considered, or came up in any discussions. “It didn’t occur to us that our neighborhood was in a high-risk fire zone, or there would be any threat. Ironically, our home was near the fire station that also burned down.”
For the time being, Bhowmik and his family are living in a rental home in northwest Santa Rosa near Fulton Road. “It’s certainly not as convenient to get back and forth to work, and to drop off and pick up our daughter from school,” he says. “Before, I could go home for lunch because my house was so close to Keysight.”
Bhowmik plans to wait several more months before making a decision to rebuild. “My wife is getting anxious about it, and we have friends who have started rebuilding. The pressure is on for us to make a decision and move on. We’ll wait through the winter to see if costs settle because right now we’re seeing rebuild per-square-foot quotes all over the place. I’ve heard other people say they will end up buying an existing home or just move away, but my wife and I both work here and our daughter is in high school. We are tied to the community.”
Okrepkie, an insurance agent for George Peterson Insurance Agency, rented a home on Espresso Court in Coffey Park before the fire. “I feel blessed to be in the job I have, because after the disaster I was able to accelerate some of the insurance process and we received our renter’s insurance payout pretty quickly. But it’s sad for most renters. More than 40 percent of Coffey Park residents were renters, and statistically only about 23 percent of them had renter’s insurance.”
The Coffey Strong website [coffeystrong.com] features a forum for Coffey Park residents to post questions, make announcements, and voice concerns. “On the site we aggregate all the contact info we can,” says Okrepkie. “So if we get updates from PG&E relating to Coffey Park or when there’s something going on in the neighborhood we believe people who lost homes should know about, we notify them through the website. Basically the website is a tool to help those who lost their homes to get things done and keep them up to date. It can be anything from a discussion of new landscape requirements to questions such as ‘Why is the grass so high in the park?’”
The park for which the Coffey Park neighborhood is named, bordered on the east by Coffey Lane, is scheduled to be overhauled by the city partially using FEMA funds, according to Okrepkie. “There was so much hazardous material impacted into the grass that the entire park will be scraped. The play structures were also compromised, so everything will be scraped clean and rebuilt.” Soil testing was still underway in mid-July.
This summer, at least three model homes were unveiled in Coffey Park for fire survivors to tour. Gallaher Homes built the structures on Nina Court, as well as a third model home nearby to showcase a two-story design. In August, Gallaher Homes had reportedly signed contracts to rebuild 79 homes in Coffey Park, Synergy Group by Christopherson is planning to rebuild about 100 homes there, Tux Tuxhorn is rebuilding as many as 50 homes his company constructed in Coffey Park more than 25 years ago, and APM Homes is rebuilding 55 homes in the neighborhood.
Many fire victims who lost their homes in the Atlas and Partrick fires in Napa County last October were proactive in quickly starting the rebuild process, according to Alfredo Pedroza, Napa County Supervisor for District 4. The majority of the homes lost to the Atlas fire were located in District 4. (See “Moving Forward Slowly”)
“Several homeowners began mobilizing immediately, determining who the available contractors would be,” says Pedroza. “We put together informational meetings to inform and educate our fire survivors to help them prepare to go forward, and these were very effective.” Held in a meeting room at Silverado Country Club, Pedroza brought along a county building official and a city planner to listen to concerns of the survivors. Some homeowners showed up with their house plans and their architects, says Pedroza.
“At one event we were there for five hours and totally booked up with fire survivors. It was an individualized way to reach them. What we realized is a lot of these people would be building a home from scratch for the first time, and it’s a foreign process if you’ve never been through it before.”
Supervisor Pedroza’s staff also reached out to the local builders community shortly after the fires to determine what their constraints may be going forward. “We can’t over-promise and under-deliver what these builders can do. Many of them were already busy before the fires, but we are all on the same team to help the survivors. People typically have rental assistance from their insurance company for 24 months. What if their rebuild takes longer? Some building materials may be on backorder and could hold up construction. People may have to decide whether they want to wait on a certain granite countertop that will slow down the whole rebuild or choose another option that’s available now.”
Unlike the Walkers, not everyone in Napa is rushing to rebuild, says Pedroza. “Many fire survivors are hitting the ‘pause’ button, and that’s mostly financially driven. Others are wondering if they can take on the burden of a rebuild at this time in their lives. It’s a tough life decision, for older people especially.”
At press time, Cal Fire had not yet announced what caused the Tubbs fire. However, Cal Fire has linked PG&E to the causes of the other October fires: Atlas, Partrick and Nuns.
“I’m hearing that many of the fire survivors are looking to build smarter and more fire-resistant new homes and creating defensible spaces, too,” says Alfredo Pedroza, Napa County Supervisor, District 4. “But we are also looking at the PG&E liability issue, and how we can learn from this disaster and focus on prevention. When you have fuel loads, you will have wildfires. So we need to be better prepared for the next time.
“PG&E is talking of making upstream investments [by] replacing poles with underground utilities and also powering down when a wildfire breaks out. But at the same time, we want to protect our PG&E ratepayers and those who lost everything. They are the priority in this conversation with PG&E.”
In the aftermath of the Sonoma County fires last October, the Sonoma County Civil Grand Jury chose to evaluate and report on three specific factors related to the firestorms. One of those factors was the process of Permit Sonoma. The Sonoma County Civil Grand Jury 2017-2018 report concentrated on, “…the significant changes that Permit and Resource Management Department, now known as Permit Sonoma, made in how they operated before the fires and how those changes are helping victims of the firestorm rebuild their lives.”
The grand jury released its findings in July, generally praising Permit Sonoma and the Resiliency Permit Center, which “responded quickly and effectively in the needs of firestorm victims while maintaining the improved day-to-day operations in Permit Sonoma.”
The grand jury also published the following figures about the Tubbs fire that ravaged Santa Rosa and the Nuns fire that raced through the Sonoma Valley: In total, 24 lives were lost, 137 square miles were burned, and 7,004 structures were destroyed in the county. The Nuns fire destroyed 639 homes and damaged 92 others. The Tubbs fire destroyed 4,658 homes and 94 commercial buildings. For more information, visit sonomacounty.ca.gov/Permit-and-Resource.
In mid-August, figures complied by the City of Santa Rosa Resilient City Fire Recovery agency revealed that 152 residential parcels where homes were destroyed in the city by the Tubbs fire have had rebuild permits issued but construction is pending. Another 325 parcels are in permit review, and 481 parcels are now in construction. Permit applications have not yet been submitted for approximately 1,787 parcels. Seven parcels had completed the construction of rebuilt homes as of August 13.
The majority of the 653 homes destroyed by the Atlas and Partrick fires in Napa County were in District 4, encompassing the areas of Monticello Park, Circle Oaks, Soda Canyon, the south end of Lake Berryessa, and Silverado Country Club. As of mid-August, 123 applications were submitted to rebuild destroyed homes in Napa County, with 113 of those within District 4. Of those 123 applications, 73 building permits have been issued, 68 within District 4. In Calistoga (District 3), 62 homes were lost in the fire, five applications were submitted and one permit has been issued.
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