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Santa Rosa After the Tubbs Fire

As coffee brewed in the kitchen, I took to my shower with the enthusiasm only a commuter at 4 AM can muster, mentally coaching myself for the week ahead. It was a rather warm week, so I was stunned that neighbors appeared to be running their fireplaces; the unmistakable smell of burnt roughage was potent. I put on my clothes, got on my bike and began my ride to the train station. I was immediately greeted by the barricade of fire and smoke that had claimed the adjacent neighborhood. The road exiting our block was teeming with fretful drivers. All of Northern Santa Rosa had apparently been up evacuating as my family slept. I turned around and gathered my wife and children with the intent of joining the masses fleeing the Tubbs Fire.

It is a testament to how secure we felt in our new home that we had prepared nothing for an evacuation of this kind. No backpack full of necessities, no legal deeds and contracts; we grabbed the diaper bag and bolted. We even left the cat behind. Even with the wall of flames observable from my doorstep, I did not take the impending danger seriously until we were on the road and turned on the radio. It was then that the scale of the fires began to set in. My wife vehemently demanded that we return to grab our pet and other valuables, but law enforcement had now blocked all roads heading into our neighborhood. As they battled one of the largest fires our city had ever known, they didn’t need to also face locals mucking about trying to save expendable trinkets and mementos.

Waiting for updates during a disaster is a miserable experience. Countless media outlets had descended on Santa Rosa to cover the fire, but their cameras stayed glued to the drama surrounding the hospital evacuation and department stores burning along the highway. The fires were still active, raging tangles. Trying to figure out if our block was gone meant going onto Twitter for community updates. Misinformation and wild speculation were rampant, but locals in my neighborhood posted credible pictures. Homes I recognized around Coffey Park were consumed; there were reports that the entire neighborhood was on fire. We had become accustomed to wild fires claiming remote homes in the hills dotting California, but the loss of a densely populated area in a city the size of Santa Rosa seemed unfathomable. Making things worse was the fact that firefighters were combatting formidable blazes all over Sonoma County, stretching the necessary resources and rescue teams thin.

For the first time, my wife and I cried, expecting to hear that our home had also been destroyed in the fire.

Later that afternoon, a coworker braved the police barricades and walked into my neighborhood to take pictures. There was my house, still standing and untouched by the inferno (our aforementioned cat was also safely sleeping inside). Our neighbors three blocks over were not so lucky. It wasn’t until aerial photos of Northwest Santa Rosa could be taken that the scope of the devastation became apparent. In addition to the businesses and wineries, our city had lost 3,000 homes (about 5% of its housing).

Writing in Salon, Bob Sesca noted the absence of political division during the Sonoma fires this last October:

I also learned that during the worst parts of a crisis of this enormity, politics vanished. I didn’t think it was possible in this dark age when Americans are more divided than at any point since 1861. As I maneuvered through the newly burned ghost towns and bumped into dozens of my neighbors, no one was talking about Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders or whether it’s acceptable for professional football players and NBC News journalists to exercise their First Amendment rights. I didn’t hear anyone speculating about the climate crisis, even though climatologists will surely discover that it amplified the magnitude of these fires.

Nevertheless, in Santa Rosa, politics ceased to exist last week.

I too witnessed acts of kindness and compassion in the days and weeks following the fire. The modern world can turn the most idealistic individual into a jaded shell, and it’s pleasant to be reminded of the goodness present in one’s neighbors in trying times. Yet, to say politics were absent during the fires and their aftermath would be a deceitful take on this disaster.

Firstly, not all of your townfolk are kind and trustworthy individuals. Families packing their cars found that brazen thieves were quick to steal valuables out of open trunks. Reports began to surface that looters were entering evacuated areas under the veil of darkness, to ransack abandoned homes. Local police arrested a number of individuals who clearly intended to pillage the neighborhood. Even with our neighborhoods under mandatory evacuation, some of us returned to care for our homes. My neighbor’s sign would be replicated throughout Northwest Santa Rosa in the days to come.

Gun-shy progressives may frown upon these community-policing actions, but I hold these simple acts to be at the heart of a social democratic mindset. We are in this together, and I will protect my neighbor’s home like my own from opportunists willing to capitalize on a people’s distress. We had just moved to this locality, and knew only a handful of individuals in the immediate area. Yet, I found a committed handful of folks patrolling the blocks around our house making sure no one’s home was the target of theft. They had nothing to gain from this other than the spirit of camaraderie with others experiencing an analogous setback. Solidarity forever.

From the LA Times

Secondly, the aftermath of the fire has made worse the economic difficulties residents have experienced in Sonoma for years. Unfortunately for Santa Rosa, the lasting impact of the fires will be on the cost of housing and the growing economic gentrification the entire Bay Area is experiencing. The income gap between wealthy residents and the middle and working classes had already grown considerably in the preceding decade; the destruction of a neighborhood made up of middle and working class citizens in Santa Rosa has suddenly exacerbated that divide. Rents have risen considerably over the last few years, but with 3,000 displaced households now flooding the market, prices have predictably risen considerably. Louis Sahagun wrote in the LA Times:

“My landlord said he plans to rebuild,” said Ditmore, 62, who ran a day-care business out of her home. “If I can afford to move back, I will. But like so many others, I’ll have to wait and see.”

Hers was one of hundreds of homes that burned down last month in Coffey Park, where about 40% of the residents were renters. A website recently posted by Gallaher Construction Inc. of Santa Rosa, titled “Bring Back Coffey Park: Looking to Rebuild or Sell?,” has only stoked concerns that a neighborhood reduced to ashes will be rebuilt as something vastly different.

A month after wildfires ripped through this city of more than 160,000, there are debates about the fate of working-class residents and undocumented immigrants, the shortage of available housing for displaced residents that has pushed rental rates into the stratosphere, and whether the firestorm will trigger an exodus of engineers, doctors and nurses, teachers, emergency responders and agricultural workers — and with it an economic downturn.

In my neighborhood, you have a cross-section of working- and middle-class families. Work trucks litter the available off-street parking, with most residents balancing a hefty mortgage carefully while juggling young children. This is not a community that can easily absorb thousands of dollars in loss in housing or property. There is a distinct fear that the well-to-do, often employed by the tech or financial industries in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, will increasingly see Santa Rosa as a bedroom community, outbidding locals in the real estate market. My family was lucky; we were able to buy a small home in July by offering only a few grand over asking price. If we were still looking to buy today, we could expect to pay 40 thousand more for the home we bought just a few months prior. For renters, the situation is even grimmer. The apartment we moved out of in July is asking 450 dollars more than when we lived there in June. On paper, you can make a decent amount of money in the Bay Area compared to your compatriots elsewhere, but with the spike in the cost of housing, those higher wages quickly evaporate in the real estate ether.

Santa Rosa will never be like San Francisco, with its hipster population fueled by start-up investments, but working people are finding it increasingly difficult to call the place home. I pray that the city I love and call home never finds itself mirroring the economically-partitioned urban centers that pass for cities in parts of America. The conditions left behind by the Sonoma fires have only heightened the existing housing and distribution issues plaguing the area. Like many of my neighbors, I fear for the fate of Santa Rosa.


Staff Writer
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Roland Dodds is an educator, researcher and father just north of San Francisco who writes about politics, culture and education. He spent his formative years in radical left wing politics, but now prefers the company of contrarians of all political stripes (assuming they aren't teetotalers). He is a regular contributor at Harry's Place and Ordinary Times.

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7 thoughts on “Santa Rosa After the Tubbs Fire

  1. I am happy that your home was spared and am so heartened by the generosity of the Bay Area, but the destruction of so many homes and families’ lives is overwhelming. Living in the South Bay, the lack of housing, affordable or otherwise, is also a significant problem and I know the problems we have in the Bay Area will now be even worse. I am not sure of the solution, but I feel strongly that cities and suburbs may need to look at building up more than people would care to admit. People want single-family homes. Heck, I want a single-family home! But to increase housing inventory in the limited available space, higher density has to be an option. Anyway, just a thought about how we might hold on to our economic diversity in our cities and suburbs. In the meantime, my thoughts continue to be with all who were affected by the fires.

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  2. I’m glad that you and yours didn’t have anything bad happen but, at the same time, I feel bad that so many (within blocks of you!) had so very many things lost.

    Survivor’s guilt is probably clawing at you.

    I don’t even really know what to say. It sucks. The system sucks. The incentives suck.

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  3. I live about 50 miles south; the smell of smoke was strong (and scary) enough to wake me up and lead me to check the whole house for its source. We had some scares (a brush fire on the opposite side of the hill from us), but nothing that in any way compares. I’m glad you and your family got through it OK.

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  4. Fires are more frequent in my part of California, but they’re usually brush burning in the hills. So I too would probably have not paid much heed to that distinctive who-started-smoking-all-of-a-sudden smell. Santa Rosa was like few other fires in recent memory, with so much of the city gone. I had not realized it was a full five percent of the housing. Particularly scary was the speed with which this fire line moved, taking houses before some people were even aware there was an issue.

    Roland I’m very glad your home made it and my heart (and charity dollars) have gone out to those not so fortunate as you. Like a lot of middle-class Californians I have happy memories of coming to your community to enjoy the wineries (though I was last there before I met your electronic acquaintance).

    One thing that Santa Rosa does have going for it is the incredibly warped dynamics of housing prices in and around San Francisco itself, the same dynamic that turned Santa Rosa into a bedroom community in the first place. And hopefully the agriculture and tourism were not so hard hit as to permit the wine that was once the centerpiece economic engine of the community to be so once again.

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  5. I sincerely hope you and your neighbors can put your lives back together in a reasonable time. If California’s insurance structure is like Colorado’s, be prepared for a rude shock on your home owner’s insurance in a couple of years when these losses get folded into local insurance rates.

    One of the things that struck me in the photo of the foundations, and this similar photo after the Waldo Canyon fire near Colorado Springs a few years ago, is how the houses are packed together. In my experience, this is a very Western thing — suburbs/exurbs, with few exceptions, are houses per acre, not acres per house. A friend recently moved from his home in the woods that was closer to downtown Atlanta than Santa Rosa is to San Francisco. I was startled when I found out how many acres he had, and how little that land was worth compared to the house.

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  6. You have my sympathy, I hope that your community can build back better than before though, like Maria above, I suspect that rebuilding more densely is the best shot at keeping housing units affordable for middle class people.

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