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California’s changing fire country

As urban development and wildfires meet, residents reckon with new risks

Around 5 p.m., the residents of Santa Rosa, California’s Coffey Park neighborhood start rolling into the neighborhood to check on their homes. Sometimes Jeff Okrepkie is there to greet them—Geraldine, Jason, Bonnie, Pam, Trish.

“Everybody wants to come see their house,” says Okrepkie, waving at another passing pick-up, whose driver stops to say hello. “Oh, how’s my house doing today? Oh, I got shingles! I got a roof!”

Okrepkie was not this popular before Coffey Park burned to the ground last October. The unprecedented Tubbs Fire jumped Highway 101 and took out the house Okrepkie and his wife were renting, along with more than 1,000 of their neighbors’ homes. In the weeks following the fire, Okrepkie, who works as a commercial insurance agent, saw the community struggling to understand what rebuilding would mean for them—from city planning permits to utility infrastructure changes to the often-maddening insurance claims process. With the support and input of hundreds of his neighbors, he formed the nonprofit community group Coffey Strong.

“We’re a clearinghouse for information and advocacy,” says Okrepkie. “We have one voice for 900 people.”

Today, one year after the fire that destroyed it, Coffey Park, a suburban subdivision in the North Bay Area’s wine country, appears to be the picture of post-disaster recovery: construction on every block; model homes with buzzing weekend open houses; and a resource-sharing community group that meets for Whine Wednesdays to catch up and trade homebuilding war stories.

“A year seems like a long time, but it’s actually very short,” says Okrepkie. And there’s still so very far to go.

Climate change that has manifested in the form of higher temperatures, less rainfall, and more extreme wind events, combined with unpredictable human behavior and unmaintained human infrastructure in flammable areas, has created the potential for unprecedented firestorms across California. Year after year, California’s fires have grown consistently larger—and if not more predictable in their behavior, at least more predictably devastating.

“It’s not a perception. People are dying—11 so far have died this year,” says Cal Fire spokesperson Scott McLean. “I hate to say so far, but so far. There is no new anymore. It’s the normal.”

In 1964, Santa Rosa survived the Hanley Fire, which burned in nearly the exact same footprint as 2017’s Tubbs. But, says fire scientist and Association for Fire Ecology president Chris Dicus, “the Hanley Fire took several days, while the Tubbs Fire took approximately 12 hours.”

Initially sparked by unmaintained power lines on a hot, windy evening, the Tubbs Fire spread rapidly down the parched hills, pushed by 60-plus-mile-per-hour winds that carried embers over the six-lane freeway and into dense suburban neighborhoods never thought to be at risk. Over the course of one night, it transformed from a wildlands fire—the kind California sees with increasing regularity—into an urban conflagration.

Taken together with the neighboring Atlas and Nuns fires, the “wine country fires” of October 2017 were the most destructive fire event in California’s history. More than 40 people were killed, and nearly 6,000 homes were destroyed across Sonoma and neighboring Napa and Solano counties.

“This is truly one of the greatest, if not the greatest, tragedies California has ever faced,” Gov. Jerry Brown said while the fires still smoldered, only partially contained. “The devastation is just unbelievable. It’s a horror that no one could have imagined.”

When a California community burns, there is an impetus, and an imperative, to rebuild quickly, and to keep the community relatively intact. In Santa Rosa, more than 1,000 homes are now in some stage of construction in what developers say they hope will be “the most successful mass rebuild in American history.”

But while Coffey Park smells like fresh Canadian lumber, other fire-stricken communities across Sonoma County have had a slower year. And many survivors across the region still haven’t been able to move on. Overwhelmed by trauma, or a personal insurance battle, or the sheer complexities and unknowns of rebuilding, they are trapped in limbo.

For Vita Iskandar, who lost her home in last October’s firestorm, “It’s the disaster after the disaster.”

In California, there is no longer a true “fire season,” and perhaps there is no longer a fire country, either. Residents began building into the state’s wildlands—the parts of California readily expected to burn—decades ago. And as it’s proven increasingly expensive and difficult to build in established urban areas, those wildland urban interface, or WUI (“woo-ee” to locals), communities continue to grow. “We see it more so every year,” says McLean.

Special vegetation and building standards for the WUI are established at the state level, but are managed by municipalities. Where funding is available, more effective management of those lands—prescribed burns and vigorous brush-cutting—can help reduce some fire risk. And among the other latest mitigation efforts, Sonoma County also has new fire-spotting surveillance cameras.

“But to best reduce the losses of homes and other critical infrastructure during a wildfire, it has to start from the home and move out,” says Dicus. According to him, and other fire scientists, when it comes to minimizing fire risks, it’s less vital to manage the natural environment than it is to redesign the built environment. “We need to be thinking less about the landscape level and look more at the landscaping level.”

As urban development and wildfire creep closer toward one another, tens of thousands of residents across the state are reckoning with new risks that once seemed relegated to the lovely, if parched golden hillsides above the cities.

Density makes these places more livable and affordable by nature, but it also makes these fires more deadly. “In an effort to try to have more affordable housing, we’re making the lot sizes smaller and smaller and smaller—and once a house ignites, it very easily can ignite the next house and the next house and the next house,” says Dicus. He and his colleagues have taken to calling the houses like those in dense Coffey Park “zombie houses.”

“Once that person or that house is infected, it can potentially infect others, and because of the winds that we saw in Santa Rosa, that’s exactly what was happening.”

The push to rebuild quickly leaves stakeholders to balance a rapidly shifting risk calculus with an immediate need to house people in one of the most expensive parts of America. They’re hardly reckless in this effort, but it leaves little time for reimagining more drastic adaptations: perhaps a retreat from the wildland urban interface, or a zoning change to discourage those “zombie houses.”

“Politicians are rightfully sympathetic to the victims, and they make these promises that they’re going to do everything they can to get people in as fast as possible,” says Dicus. “This has the potential to set up for the next destructive wildfire if certain codes or regulations aren’t met.”

In the early weeks following the fires, Sonoma County Supervisor Susan Gorin, who lost her own home in the Nuns Fire, suggested that the county should reconsider permitting rebuilding in Fountaingrove, a community at the brushy edges of Santa Rosa. Another Sonoma County supervisor, Shirley Zane, suggested that Coffey Park take this as an opportunity to do a full, more urbanized redesign.

For Santa Rosa planning and economic development director David Guhin, those options were never effectively on the table. “We brought it to the council, and there was support for getting people back into their homes,” says Guhin. “The decision was from day one, what do we do as a city to try to understand our role in the process... and help our residents get back home as quickly as possible.”

Government generally has a light hand, and that’s how residents want it.

“Mostly up on the hill, there were some conversations like, is it right to rebuild here again? My answer to that is, it’s not your property, so take a walk,” says Okrepkie. “You’ll see a very very deep blue county get very very libertarian if you start talking about that.”

Steve Quarles, consultant and former chief scientist to the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety, has given multiple presentations on home-hardening practices after last October’s fires. “Mostly I focus on things that people can do that are really quite inexpensive,” he says, from upgrading to fire-resistant building materials to moving combustible materials away from homes to regularly cleaning gutters: “Nuanced things turn out to be important.”

At the planning level, Santa Rosa has embraced those little, but impactful changes. “We did hold strong to—everything that gets rebuilt is going to be built to best standards we have on the books,” says Guhin. “We have to do the best we can with the rules we have in place but also try to encourage different approaches. If you say, okay, everything stop for a couple years while we evaluate—basically we lose thousands of individuals.”

A streamlined building process can help keep a devastated community intact—but market forces make at least some displacement inevitable.

“Take it from us—yes, your house burning down really, really sucks,” says Okrepkie. “But it’s really nice to have hundreds of thousands of dollars being given to you to make you whole. I’m one of the very, very, very few that’s that fortunate.”

Nearly half of Coffey Park residents were renters like Okrepkie—and only about three in 10 had insurance, according to County Supervisor James Gore.

Jeff Okrepkie

According to a United Policyholders survey, six months after the fires, 66 percent of survivors surveyed reported being underinsured for their home, and 47 percent reported being underinsured for the contents of their home.

“My experience is that most people are vastly underinsured in California,” says Dicus. “They had insurance that they might have bought on a policy for a replacement value years ago, and as the cost of construction and housing in California has escalated, they simply don’t have the funds to rebuild their homes.”

Vita Iskandar estimates that about half of her neighbors in the Hidden Valley neighborhood on Santa Rosa’s east side were underinsured. “They’ll either have to come up with other funds,” she says, “or they’ll have to move elsewhere.”

In the wake of the fires, Iskandar attended many United Policyholders meetings, and sometimes volunteered with the group. While struggling with her insurer, State Farm, it became clear there was a need for the power, and the emotional outlet, of community organizing. She started her own resource-sharing website and email list, Neighbors Together Strong and Resilient.

“My focus has been on how horrible the insurance process has been for way too many homeowners,” she says. “So many people are continuing to have difficulty. We help support each other so that we’re not so defeated that we give up.”

Iskandar’s listserv for State Farm policyholders across the region overflows with anecdotes of indignity. “The lowballing,” she says, “the pushbacks, the adjusters from out of state who don’t understand the cost of living in Northern California and are not versed in California insurance laws, incorrectly citing policies.

“For those of us who have had the same insurer for 20, 30, 40, some even 50 years, we feel betrayed. We paid our premiums all that time, on time, and we expect to get what we paid for.”

Iskandar and her partner have not yet decided if or how they might rebuild their home. “We don’t know what we’re going to do until we know how much money we’re going to have,” she says. “We’re not near complete with our dwelling portion of our claim. We think if we get 100 percent of our coverage, and that’s a big if—we’re just about right. We don’t have that sense of confidence—we don’t feel like we’ve crossed the most major hurdle yet.”

Even when policyholders are able to get the stated maximum payout for their home, it may not be enough to cover their rebuild for the very same size and type of home they lost. That’s before they contend with the second part of the insurance process: covering everything that was lost inside that home.

In the Nuns Fire, Stephanie Steck-Benthin, her husband, and their two children lost their Glen Ellen home and tiny farm just beyond Santa Rosa city limits.

Steck-Benthin knew she wanted her contractor friend to rebuild. When State Farm offered them far less than their maximum, her contractor took up the fight on their behalf, and State Farm finally relented. “It’s still less than we need to rebuild, but at least we got that,” she says.

The family used the initial payment to cover the remainder of their mortgage. Now they’ve moved to what’s proven to be the far more painful portion of the insurance process: the contents of the home. At first, they were offered 50 percent of their maximum policy. That was later bumped to 75 percent. Now, if they want their full payout, the family has to list every single item they lost in the fire.

Once they’ve inventoried their belongings, policyholders can decide whether to replace each item exactly, or accept an item’s depreciated value in cash. “I think what they’re hoping for is that people will say ‘Maybe I’m just better off taking the 75 percent and not having the hassle,’” says Steck-Benthin.

It is not just a hassle, but a searing reminder of every item lost, destroyed: the heirloom music box; the unopened, hidden Christmas presents for the kids; the collection of gifted cashmere sweaters, amassed over decades; toys and trinkets saved to hand down to possible future grandchildren; even mundane pantry staples and spices. It is a traumatic list to compile. And it adds up to far more than people often expect.

Steck-Benthin and her family are still working on their list. “We haven’t really finished it because it’s just so hard,” she says. “When you think about it for 20 minutes you just want to curl up into a ball.

“I just really feel like, we were insured for a certain amount, and we paid to be insured for that amount, so just give us that amount. If you didn’t want to give us that, then you should’ve come by and looked at the house when it was still there when we bought the insurance and told us that wasn’t right.”

Steck-Benthin and her family are relying on the payment for the contents of their home to offset the higher cost of rebuilding. Otherwise, they’ll be dipping—or scooping—into their retirement savings.

A new law set to go into effect in July 2019 would require insurers to reassess their residential property coverage every other year, ensuring that coverage amounts stay up to date. In its original form, a bill proposed by Sonoma County state Sen. Mike McGuire would have required insurers to pay out at least 80 percent of the contents coverage without any inventory. But with a powerful state insurance lobby, making greater systemic changes has proven difficult. McGuire was so disappointed in the revisions the state legislature’s insurance committee made to his bill that he chose to table it, vowing to fight again another day.

Without consistent standards across the industry, insureds are left to struggle as their own advocates, arguing for what they believe they are owed.

“You think you’re buying security when you’re buying insurance,” says Iskandar. “You’re buying something, but you’re not buying security.”

About 1,200 homes are currently in the building process across Santa Rosa. Where funding gaps haven’t proven to be a deterrent to rebuilding, the construction process itself has been stressful for many fire survivors.

“If you talked to anybody who’s built a house from scratch before—imagine doing that displaced with all your stuff burnt to the ground. It’s exponentially more complicated,” says Okrepkie. “There’s some people who started down the process and decided nope, I’m out. One of my neighbors still don’t know what they’re going to do. They waffle.”

More than half of the homes in Coffey Park have a sign at the edge of the front yard advertising the firm rebuilding the home, or the agent selling the empty lot where the home once stood.

According to title records, at least 207 fire-damaged lots in Santa Rosa have changed hands in the last year, with another 13 sold in the rest of Sonoma County.

“We don’t know if there’s people coming to buy lots, build a home, and flip it—or Airbnb it,” says Okrepkie. “Right now we really can’t tell what it is.”

Some of these lots have been in and out of contract a handful of times since they hit the market in spring, as spec buyers scoop them up, bid out for a possible rebuild, and then dump the lots when they find out there’s not a quick buck to be made, says Okrepkie.

Similarly, the rebuild has not been especially attractive to large outside developers, for whom the project would not prove profitable enough to bother.

“Obviously there is money to be made,” says Okrepkie. “But what we’re seeing is that when there’s usually a 16 to 18 percent profit line in there, now we’re seeing 11 to 12.”

With its dense, uniform design, Coffey Park has proven the easiest place to apply a cheaper, faster production rebuild model.

APM Homes was one of the original developers that designed, built, and sold hundreds of tract homes in Coffey Park decades ago. Chief operations officer John Allen has been with the company his “whole life”—Allen’s dad worked as a superintendent on that first Coffey Park build. APM is currently working on 60 homes in the neighborhood. “We’re trying to get people in as quickly as humanly possible,” says Allen—and at a comparatively affordable $240 to $260 per square foot.

“We’re able to build in mass and get the costs down,” says Allen. “We are a one-stop shop—it’s a total turnkey product.” APM offers eight different plans, based on the original Coffey Park home designs from decades past, with new energy saving and fire codes taken into account, and a limited number of available upgrade packages for different finishes. “Regardless of how tragic and devastating last year’s fire event was, there is a silver lining in it,” he says. “You’re getting a brand-new home. They’re better homes. The code requirements and the building materials have come a long, long way in the last 30 years.”

But building homes for individual owners is not how APM, or any of their local competitors, is used to doing business. “This is a totally different dynamic that requires extra effort and special attention,” says Allen. “None of us wants to see folks displaced. We want to keep our community intact. And if we don’t partake in this, then we run the risk of losing those valued members of our community.”

Local developer Synergy similarly offers fixed building costs for a limited number of plans and upgrades. It’s currently building 97 single-family homes in Santa Rosa, for $255 to $315 per square foot.

“We’re not sitting there thinking, ‘How do we squeeze every last drop out of this?’” says Brian Flahavan, legal counsel for Synergy Group. “Obviously we have to make some money, but do something we think is reasonable and provide a quality home for somebody at a reasonable price.”

Along with homebuilding, Synergy has offered clients help negotiating their insurance payouts. “For people on an individual basis, uprooted, trying to have a full-time job and get back to a normal life, I’m sure it could be overwhelming, but for us, we’ve gotten a handle on what needs to happen,” says Flahavan. He feels their clients haven’t had the insurance nightmares that others report.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily a function of people being underinsured,” he says, “it’s more a function of they wanted to add square footage or they’re looking to do something different, but it’s not a reflection of not having adequate insurance money.”

While mass-production building whirs away, custom homes have been a slower project across the rest of the region: The lots are less uniform, the terrain is more rugged, and the fire-safety design standards in many cases are more stringent. And, says Guhin, “just finding architect and engineer services right now is extremely difficult.”

Those homes come with significantly heftier price tags, sometimes necessitating additional gap financing. A handful of local banks and credit unions have entered the fray with special construction debt products: During the build, the borrower typically pays interest only, at a slightly higher rate; once the home is completed, the loan converts to a permanent, lower-rate mortgage, or is added to an existing mortgage. In the case of local production builder Gallaher, those loans are a cause of some concern: The construction company has deep ties to the local bank it recommends to clients.

Some have decided not to contend with the litany of details involved in a rebuild—but they’ve also decided not to leave. They’re selling their lots and buying new homes constructed by other developers, including Silvermark, which is currently rebuilding 25 homes for individuals, and 30 other new homes on purchased lots that it is selling on the open market. One cluster of new Silvermark homes priced between $860,000 and $880,000 sold above asking this summer—even though they’re not yet finished.

“Relocating and moving out of that space is at least helpful because it’s not a daily reminder of losing everything,” says 3Tree realtor Allegra Gigante-Luft.

“Most of the buyers are people who lost their homes,” says Silvermark spokesperson Tiffany Owen-Monroe. “Obviously it’s not everybody. Silvermark isn’t allowed to be exclusive. But most of the people who are buying are buying a replacement property now.”

Gigante-Luft figures that about a quarter of the buyers are not fire survivors. But, she says, there’s no apparent anxiety about future fire risk from either new residents or existing ones.

“I don’t think that’s really a big concern for people,” she says. “It’s kind of like if you’re struck by lightning, you’re not really concerned about getting struck again.”

Insurers, at least, do not appear to agree with the lightning theory.

According to state law, insurance companies must offer a single one-year home policy renewal to clients impacted by a disaster. If insurers do choose to drop coverage for recovering fire survivors, they can start doing so right now.

Regardless of how survivors improve their homes’ fire resilience in rebuilding, insurers may decide to hike prices, or simply pull their policies, based on their own stomach for the California market and proprietary risk models. Fire survivors in other parts of the state are already being dropped from their policies. “AAA, All State, State Farm, a lot of the direct writers—we’re hearing that they’re dropping people like flies,” says Okrepkie.

Even if you take all of Quarles’s fire-readying advice and prepare your home, there’s no guarantee that an insurer will care when it comes to setting your rates or considering whether to cover you at all.

In WUI areas, says state insurance commissioner Dave Jones, “insurers are beginning to decline to write insurance and have been declining to write insurance over time.” Between 2015 and 2016, in the 30 WUI counties in California, insurance nonrenewals rose by more than 15 percent.

“Most homeowners in most places in California can find home insurance,” says Jones. When no home insurance is available on the open market, California offers the FAIR plan—“an insurance of last resort,” as Jones puts it. About 130,000 homes in California are insured under the FAIR plan—those numbers are increasing roughly 2,000 each year in WUI areas, according to FAIR plan data.

“That is the canary in the coal mine,” Jones says. “If I were to see FAIR plan subscription numbers jump up dramatically, that would tell me that there’s a bigger problem than is the case currently in terms of the availability of homeowner’s insurance in California right now.”

For those forced to depend on it, FAIR doesn’t appear popular. It has a 1.2 rating on Consumer Affairs. “It’s not complete, comprehensive coverage,” says Okrepkie. “It’s not that robust and now they’re so bogged down.”

Even with full coverage on a rebuild, the loss of any reasonable, comprehensive insurance option could be enough to push yet more homeowners out of the area.

Since the fires, insureds have been provided emergency rental housing funds that are set to expire in one more year. Only then may the true scale of displacement here be fully assessed.

After a disaster, municipalities need to prevent displacement for its own sake—and for the sake of the community that remains. Property tax revenues have already taken a hit, and getting people back into their homes as soon as possible will make up some of that lost ground.

“So far we’re seeing a little dip” in sales tax revenues too, says Guhin. “It’s definitely a concern.” In the short term, the city is considering budget reductions, “because we dipped into our reserves quite a bit, primarily because of the cost of the response.”

“The near term is making sure everyone gets back in their houses and that they’re okay,” says Okrepkie. “The long term is, ‘What’s this going to mean for our economy?’”

The most vulnerable residents—the renters, the elderly on fixed incomes—seem unlikely to remain. Rates of homelessness have risen. The housing affordability crisis was already bad in Santa Rosa, with the local service industry drawing workers from farther, cheaper suburbs. Now those workers have been priced even further afield. Home sales may have slowed, but home prices are still rising. The demographics of the region may well have shifted permanently.

“What I’ve seen in Santa Rosa is people moving away,” says Dicus. “When this happens, when you have migration away from an area, and it affects the tax base, it’s just cascading. There’s the disaster and then there’s this continuing disaster that happens in the years following.”

Apocalyptic near-future scenarios featuring a California aflame may get a lot of things right, but they often get this wrong: Society does not break down in disaster. It is a cliche that tight-knit communities are truly forged in the heat of crisis, because it consistently holds true.

For all her insurance anguish, says Iskandar, “the generosity, kindness, and compassion of every single fire survivor I encounter, and this is hundreds of people, has not yet waned a year later.”

The profiteering and friction with bad contractors and withholding insurers is as inevitable as the deepening of ties in places where, one year ago, neighbors barely knew one another.

“The unintended consequence is we’ve become far, far closer as a neighborhood than we ever were before,” says Okrepkie. “Everyone is interconnected now.”

He sees that reflected in the kinds of homes that people in Coffey Park want to build—no longer the ranch styles with living spaces at the rear of the house that have been popular for the last 30 years, but a new focus toward the street, toward one another.

“People are like, ‘I want a big bay window in the front of my house. I want to be able to look out my front window to see who’s walking by,’” he says. “They want to look forward.”

But that’s only true of the people who are able to stay, despite market forces and increased natural threats.

In order to survive in the long term, communities like those in Sonoma County, and across California’s increasingly fire-prone areas, will be best served by learning from the collaborative grassroots efforts that arose in the wake of last October’s firestorm—to not just survive, but to address systemic inadequacies in utilities and emergency response, and inequities in insurance availability. And to plan for what comes next.

Dicus and other ecologists at Cal Poly are working to establish a Wildland Urban Interface Fire Institute in an attempt at finding holistic solutions. “To make resilient communities, we’re going to have to have a lot of disciplines coming together at the table at the same time—planners, architects, builders, firefighters, scientists,” says Dicus. “Only by getting out of our silos are we really going to make a dent in this problem.”

As average temperatures continue to climb, California continues to dry out, and the land continues to burn, we may unfortunately have many more opportunities to relearn these same hard-won lessons.

Perhaps no one could have imagined this, as Gov. Brown insisted last October—but if this California is to survive intact, we may need to begin doing just that.

Susie Cagle has reported on policy and politics for ProPublica, the New York Times, and others. She writes about money for the Nation.

Editor: Sara Polsky


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