In The News

Rick Laws interviewed by Los Angeles Times on Santa Rosa rebuild

Santa Rosa’s rebuild is anything but easy

Fac­ing com­pli­ca­tions, many fire vic­tims de­cide to move on

A BURNED car sits in Mark West Es­tates on Wednesday. Much of the fire de­bris has been cleared, but the re­build­ing ef­fort is slow go­ing.
Pho­to­graphs by Wally Skalij Los An­ge­les Times
A RAIN­BOW rises above empty lots at Mark West Es­tates in Santa Rosa, Calif., where en­tire neigh­bor­hoods were wiped out in Oc­to­ber’s firestorm. Many home­own­ers are sell­ing their lots, for­go­ing a re­build.
Wally Skalij Los An­ge­les Times
REAL ES­TATE agent Sylvia West stands in Santa Rosa’s Mark West Es­tates, where she has list­ings for empty lots. West’s aunt and un­cle died in Oc­to­ber’s fire.

Like so many fire vic­tims who es­caped with noth­ing but their lives, 68-year-old Dorothea Shipp had de­cided to leave Cal­i­for­nia.

She’d been trau­ma­tized by the cat­a­strophic fire that de­stroyed ev­ery home in her Santa Rosa neigh­bor­hood in Oc­to­ber.

She’d been trau­ma­tized by the cat­a­strophic fire that de­stroyed ev­ery home in her Santa Rosa neigh­bor­hood in Oc­to­ber.

She would sell the lot where her beloved home once stood off Mark West Springs Road, cash out her in­sur­ance pol­icy and move to Ari­zona with her dachshund Erich to start a new life.

“I’m not nor­mally a per­son who cries, but I was pretty de­pressed, and a lit­tle crazed,” she said. “Fly­ing off the han­dle ev­ery five min­utes.”

But Shipp, who re­tired from her wine sales job last year, had a change

Of heart af­ter her brother pleaded with her to stay. “He said, ‘If you leave Cal­i­for­nia, it will break my heart. Please don’t go.’ ”

She also re­mem­bered some good advice she got 30 years ago af­ter an un­ex­pected divorce.

“My psy­chol­o­gist said, ‘Do you want to come here ev­ery week and sit on my sofa and cry your eyes out? Or do you want to do some­thing?’ And I said, ‘I guess I am go­ing to do some­thing.’ ”

“My psy­chol­o­gist said, ‘Do you want to come here ev­ery week and sit on my sofa and cry your eyes out? Or do you want to do some­thing?’ And I said, ‘I guess I am go­ing to do some­thing.’ ”

She snapped out of her gloom. She asked friends and rel­a­tives to send pho­tos, which helped take the edge off los­ing her fam­ily his­tory. And then, be­cause she loved her 17-year-old home, she tracked down the orig­i­nal build­ing plans.

She snapped out of her gloom. She asked friends and rel­a­tives to send pho­tos, which helped take the edge off los­ing her fam­ily his­tory. And then, be­cause she loved her 17-year-old home, she tracked down the orig­i­nal build­ing plans.

“The builder said, ‘This is music to my ears,’ and he moved on it like a duck on a June bug,” she said.

“The builder said, ‘This is music to my ears,’ and he moved on it like a duck on a June bug,” she said.

Un­like many other fire vic­tims whose poli­cies will not nearly cover re­place­ment costs, her in­sur­ance will cover all but $30,000 of her es­ti­mated $600,000 in con­struc­tion costs.

Although State Farm will pay her $2,400 monthly rent on her two-bed­room condo for two years, she plans to be back home long be­fore her in­sur­ance runs out.

“I am go­ing to be in there,” she told me this week, “be­fore the year ends.”

Nearly 6,000 homes and other struc­tures burned down in the deadly wild­fires that in­cin­er­ated parts of Napa, Sonoma and Men­do­cino coun­ties in Oc­to­ber. En­tire neigh­bor­hoods were wiped out. More than 40 peo­ple died.

To many, it seemed as if the re­con­struc­tion would be ar­du­ous but straight­for­ward: Clear the de­bris, get the per­mits, start re­build­ing. It has been any­thing but.

To many, it seemed as if the re­con­struc­tion would be ar­du­ous but straight­for­ward: Clear the de­bris, get the per­mits, start re­build­ing. It has been any­thing but.

Hazardous sub­stances have been found in soils af­fected by the fire. Sep­tic and water sys­tems have been af­fected. Util­i­ties were de­stroyed. In the Foun­tain­grove neigh­bor­hood north of down­town Santa Rosa, the en­tire water sys­tem will have to be re­placed af­ter can­cer-caus­ing ben­zene from melted plas­tics con­tam­i­nated it.

Hazardous sub­stances have been found in soils af­fected by the fire. Sep­tic and water sys­tems have been af­fected. Util­i­ties were de­stroyed. In the Foun­tain­grove neigh­bor­hood north of down­town Santa Rosa, the en­tire water sys­tem will have to be re­placed af­ter can­cer-caus­ing ben­zene from melted plas­tics con­tam­i­nated it.

Hazardous sub­stances have been found in soils af­fected by the fire. Sep­tic and water sys­tems have been af­fected. Util­i­ties were de­stroyed. In the Foun­tain­grove neigh­bor­hood north of down­town Santa Rosa, the en­tire water sys­tem will have to be re­placed af­ter can­cer-caus­ing ben­zene from melted plas­tics con­tam­i­nated it.

As of the end of March, only 54 build­ing per­mits had been granted in Sonoma County. About 200 va­cant lots are on the mar­ket, and 72 oth­ers have been sold. Shipp is one of the first home­own­ers here to have bro­ken ground on a new home. Many home­own­ers were underinsured, can’t af­ford to re­build what they had and are sell­ing their lots.

Most of Shipp’s neigh­bors, she said, are mov­ing on. Of course, you can’t tell any of that by look­ing at her Berry Brook sub­di­vi­sion just east of High­way 101; it’s all dirt lots, marked off, in some cases by sur­vey­ors’ flags, hur­ri­cane fenc­ing around empty swim­ming pools and the oc­ca­sional “for sale” sign.

One of the re­build­ing chal­lenges is that no­body re­ally knows how much a va­cant lot should cost. In the be­gin­ning, at least, there were no com­par­a­tive sales fig­ures.

One of the re­build­ing chal­lenges is that no­body re­ally knows how much a va­cant lot should cost. In the be­gin­ning, at least, there were no com­par­a­tive sales fig­ures.

“It’s a sci­en­tific wild-ass guess,” said Rick Laws, a Sonoma County real es­tate ex­pert who of­fered a sem­i­nar this week to lo­cal agents about the chal­lenges in­volved in sell­ing “firestorm lots.”

Builders from all over Cal­i­for­nia and be­yond have made for­ays into the mar­ket. Some have pur­chased sev­eral lots in or­der to build spec homes. Oth­ers have tried to con­tract with mul­ti­ple home­own­ers who are stay­ing and re­build­ing. “They’ll say, ‘We have six floor plans to choose from and we need 10 of you to re­build with us to make it worth our while,’ ” Laws said. But it’s fairly slow go­ing. “If we have 50% of the hous­ing stock we lost re­built in five years,” Laws said, “I will be sur­prised.”

Six months on, the fire de­bris and cloy­ing smell of smoke are gone. The melted cars and charred chim­neys that gave sub­ur­ban neigh­bor­hoods like Foun­tain­grove and Cof­fey Park the look of burned-out hellscapes are but mem­o­ries. Foun­da­tions have been bro­ken up and carted away.

Six months on, the fire de­bris and cloy­ing smell of smoke are gone. The melted cars and charred chim­neys that gave sub­ur­ban neigh­bor­hoods like Foun­tain­grove and Cof­fey Park the look of burned-out hellscapes are but mem­o­ries. Foun­da­tions have been bro­ken up and carted away.

“I don’t think one home here will have a saved foun­da­tion,” said Sylvia West, a Santa Rosa real es­tate agent who has list­ings for three lots off Mark West Springs Road. “The in­ten­sity of this fire was so hot that it com­pro­mised the ce­ment.”

That, she said, was a les­son learned in the Oak­land Hills firestorm of 1991, in which foun­da­tions that were thought to be OK were later found com­pro­mised by the in­tense heat.

As long as it will take for the phys­i­cal scars to heal, the emo­tional ones may never fade. West’s un­cle Art Grant, 95, and his wife, Suiko Grant, 75, died at their Santa Rosa home on Riebli Road. They were as­phyx­i­ated with their dog af­ter seek­ing shel­ter in their wine cel­lar.

As long as it will take for the phys­i­cal scars to heal, the emo­tional ones may never fade. West’s un­cle Art Grant, 95, and his wife, Suiko Grant, 75, died at their Santa Rosa home on Riebli Road. They were as­phyx­i­ated with their dog af­ter seek­ing shel­ter in their wine cel­lar.

On Wednesday, in a driz­zle, West and I drove around look­ing at empty lots. We parked at 170 Pa­cific Heights Drive in the Mark West Es­tates, a lot she is sell­ing for $275,000. The own­ers were plan­ning a move to Texas and were ready­ing the house for mar­ket when the fire de­stroyed it.

Fi­nan­cially, they won’t suf­fer, West said, and they thank their in­sur­ance agent for that. Ev­ery year, the agent bugged them about up­dat­ing their pol­icy.

On some blocks, clumps of bright or­ange Cal­i­for­nia pop­pies seemed like a hope­ful re­buke to the black­ened, once-mag­nif­i­cent red­wood trees that still tower over dirt yards now cov­ered with straw.

“It was a beau­ti­ful neigh­bor­hood,” West said. “I think it will be beau­ti­ful again.”

 

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