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Greener homes: Rebuilding Santa Rosa one year after the fires

Angela Johnston
The Larkfield Estates neighborhood has dozens of new homes popping up a year post-fire.

The Camp Fire in Northern California is now the deadliest and most destructive fire in California history. For most Californians, this milestone is starting to sound all too familiar.

While the Camp Fire victims are dealing with the immediate aftermath of a disaster, people affected by last year’s Wine Country fires are in the middle of a long and arduous rebuilding process. It’s a cycle that some people think we’ll need to get used to in this fire-prone state. But, one silver lining: starting over means an opportunity to build differently, with the environment and climate change in mind.

The night of the fire

One of the things Gena Jacob remembers from the night of the fire is the sound of her wife’s bare feet running down the street, as she tried to wake their neighbors up.

“I could just hear her feet hitting the pavement so hard –– banging on doors, windows, trying to alert people because everybody was asleep,” Jacob recalls.

The next morning, their Larkfield Estates subdivision was completely erased by the fire. More than a year later, though, the neighborhood is full of rebuilding sounds. Jacob’s neighbors are in all stages of home reconstruction.

Credit Angela Johnston / KALW Public Radio
KALW Public Radio

Her family knew it would be expensive, but they decided they wanted to stay here in the neighborhood, almost immediately. This was their home.

“I love my neighborhood,” Jacob says. “It draws me here, and I also feel like it gives me an opportunity to be a part of rebuilding a neighborhood instead of walking. I really want to see this come back together.”

So, theday after the fire started, Jacob contacted an architect and a builder. But, almost a year later, she hasn’t started building yet. I meet her on the dirt plot of land where her old house used to stand, where she lived with her family for almost 20 years.

Decisions to make

They had problems with their insurance, and like a lot of fire victims, that slowed them down. There’s a building shortage up there, and on top of that supplies like concrete are in high demand and expensive.

Another challenge –– sewage. Larkfield Estates is an old subdivision. Before the fire, every home was on a septic system, not connected to Santa Rosa’s central sewer line like the rest of the city. Septic systems are like mini wastewater treatment plants underneath each home, and they can be incredibly efficient when they’re well maintained. But these are old, and many don’t meet the current county standards. If they break, they can contaminate groundwater, something that’s extremely precious in drought years. Even before she lost her home, Jacob was worried about her system.

“I felt like I was already on borrowed time,” she says.

So when the Sonoma County Water Agency came to her and the rest of her subdivision with the idea of connecting the entire neighborhood to the main sewer line, she thought it could be a good opportunity. Then she heard the price.

“Basically, they said it's going to cost, you know, $57,000 dollars and more per homeowner and that was just like, Whoa.”

They complained, and the water agency shaved off a couple thousand dollars, but the entire neighborhood, all 140 homes, had to buy in –– it was all or nothing.

“It started creating friction, and that's what I didn't want to happen with our neighborhood,” Jacob says.

Credit Angela Johnston / KALW Public Radio
KALW Public Radio

On top of all the rebuilding costs and insurance shortfalls, any extra time and expense could be prohibitive. So, the water agency came back with another plan: $45,000 with a low-interest rate loan. And, if you wanted to keep your old septic system, you could.

“So this opportunity isn't cheap, but it allows us as homeowners to choose say sustainability for our rebuild.”

More than just water

More than half of the 140 homes in Larkfield estates are choosing to connect to the sewer line, but it’s not just about water. Sonoma Clean Power program manager Rachel Kuykendall thinks big changes can be made if Santa Rosa rebuilds with cleaner energy options, like electric power versus gas.

“Right when the fires hit, it was actually very interesting because we're a bit unique as a utility. We're not for profit and really our mission is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” Kuykendall says.“So that was really a moment for us to step back and say, how can we help our community rebuild and how can we help them rebuild better?”

They found that if you build a house completely electric, it’s the equivalent of taking 3 cars a year off the road, so their answer was providing money for people who decide to rebuild their homes with clean power.

One person who considered taking them up on the offer is Barry Hirsch. He lives up the road from Gena Jacob and knew his home was destroyed when a friend texted him a picture the day after his family evacuated.

“I wouldn’t have known it was my place. There was nothing. You know there was nothing. It was all gone,” Hirsch says. He’s a retired contractor and knew he needed to get the ball rolling right away.

I've built houses my whole life, and...we had propane up here before and I had a gas water heater, gas cooktop, all that kind of stuff. And that's what I was going to do,” he says.

But then he heard a Sonoma Clean Power talk about energy efficient homes.

“I thought that sounds cool. So I started investigating it more and yes so I got really into it and I said, ‘man if I'm going to build a house, why should I just build an old crappy house...I mean my house was nice but…”

One thing lead to another and soon Hirsch was buying an electric hot water heater and drawing plans for rooftop solar, building a 100% electric home.

When I meet Hirsch at his place, contractors are putting the final touches in the kitchen before he gets ready to move back in and installing an electric stove just in time for Thanksgiving. Some of Hirsch’s neighbors are also installing solar and other energy efficient appliances, but it’s been difficult to get others on board.

Credit Angela Johnston / KALW Public Radio
KALW Public Radio
Barry Hirsch stands in front of his new home in Mark West Springs.

“It just kind of slows the process, and people are in a rush to get a house built so that complication of doing that stuff does not make the program desirable for everyone,” he says.

The $18,000 incentive

Rachel Kuykendall is dealing with the same issues at Sonoma Clean Power, getting people back in greener homes faster, and doing it without turning people away altogether. They’re offering almost $18,000 in incentives for specific items like electric car chargers, extra insulation to keep a house warm, and solar panel, but this is still out of reach for a lot of people - so far only a couple hundred have signed up.

“Some people will look at Sonoma County and say ‘oh everyone's really rich. They don't need this.’ But what they don't realize is we lost a lot of low-income homes, and it hit a lot of folks who just financially can't do this,” Kuykendall says.

And it’s not just homeowners who lost their places to live, it’s also renters. Kuykendall says they’re looking at ways to work around this, like collaborating with an affordable housing developer and a mobile home park to see if they can rebuild a low-income multi-family building, 100% electric.

A pumpkin grows in Sonoma

In Larkfield Estates, Gena Jacob points out an empty lot, some of her neighbors that couldn’t afford to stay.

“You have a lot of elderly people that lived in this neighborhood, senior citizens. And why would they want to add a mortgage to rebuild when their house was paid off?” she asks.

As we walk out of where her driveway would’ve been, we almost trip over a pumpkin plant, popping out of the dirt and debris.

Credit Angela Johnston / KALW Public Radio
KALW Public Radio
A pumpkin plant grows out from the dirt at Gena Jacob's old lot.

“We plant pumpkins every year,” Jacob explains. “They were usually planted back there. It just reseeded itself. It's just an example of how something can be just totally taken out by a fire, but yet life can return.”