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Tiny houses could help shelter California wildfire victims

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One fire-ravaged county and city just approved RVs and trailers for temporary housing

The devastating wildfires that swept through California’s North Bay this month burned well over 100,000 acres and destroyed thousands of homes in their paths. As the region begins to rebuild, one immediate solution for the urgent need of housing could be more tiny homes.

On Tuesday, Sonoma County and its city of Santa Rosa—which lost five percent of total housing in the wildfires—approved new ordinances that would allow affected individuals to temporarily live in parked RVs and travel trailers, as well as offer waived or reduced permit fees for building secondary dwelling units on existing properties. The goal of these new rules is to help rehouse folks who lost their homes in the fires as soon as possible. And, in some cases, the process has already begun.

As NBC reports, Santa Rosa couple, Charlie McEvoy, a contractor, and his wife, Andrea, are building tiny homes for people who lost everything. They’ve started on one house already, and hope to raise enough funds for one or two more. Each structure will have a kitchen, bathroom, and sleeping area, taking up about as much space as an RV. Their phone has reportedly been “been ringing off the hook” because of the great demand and the couple is currently going through a permit process to complete their project legally.

Meanwhile, Escape Homes, a major RV-certified tiny house builder based in Wisconsin, has begun offering “fire and hurricane relief” versions of a few popular models, including the traditional-style Escape Vintage shown above, in both regular and XL editions, as well as the Escape Traveler XL, which can sleep up to eight people.

According to Escape Homes CEO Dan Dobrowolski, the regular and relief models are “very similar,” with the main difference being additions and subtractions made in adherence to the requirements of relief and governmental agencies like FEMA. Washers/dryers and TVs, for example, are often excluded from relief units. The company also makes minor changes to window patterns and fenestration to speed up the construction process. The relief models are currently offered at discounts of about $9,000 to $18,700 off list prices.

“Our website took 6,500 new hits in a 12 hour period right after the fire and we can monitor exactly where they come from...They were all Northern California,” Dobrowoski writes in an email. “And it is not stopping.”

An Escape tiny house located just outside Santa Rosa, California, survived the fire.
Escape Homes

And in something of a miracle, three Escape tiny houses that were already parked on properties affected by these wildfires made it through with minor or no damage. As seen in these photos, an Escape house located just outside of Santa Rosa was spared, while a nearby garage has been destroyed, along with “everything in a five-mile radius,” according to Dobrowolski.

Left: A burned down garage near the tiny house; Right: The Escape tiny house from a distance.
Escape Homes

He says another Escape house in the area had its tanks melted and attached redwood deck “vaporized,” but the building itself did not burn. Escape houses have exteriors made of pre-finished cedar lap siding and protective steel panels, and usually metal roofs with metal flashing.

So how did these houses survive? It’s a mystery to Dobrowolski as well. But what’s certain is that figuring out how to protect new constructions in the region will be a pressing challenge for architects and designers in the years to come. For full coverage of the North Bay wildfires and the aftermath, head over to Curbed SF.