After the Flames

The fires are nearly 100% contained in Northern California. That doesn’t mean they are out, although they are nearly out. We got a little bit of rain last week and that helped.

During the time of the fire disaster, 100,000 people in Sonoma County were displaced at least temporarily. At least 5800 buildings were destroyed. Most were homes. Many were businesses.

Now, slowly, things are settling into a post-disaster mode. Most people have places to stay. Evacuation orders are lifted and people are allowed back into neighborhoods. Some return to find their houses untouched by fire. Some are returning to look at a cracked, blackened foundation and a field of rubble with perhaps a chimney sticking up through it.

I know five people who lost the houses they owned and lived in. I’m tempted to say “I know five people who lost their homes,” but in fact I know seven people who lost their homes. Two people were renters, and the place they rented is now gone. They lost their homes too.

The county has announced that it is reaching out to neighboring counties who were not affected by the fires to “borrow” plan-checking employees, so that plans to rebuild can be expedited to some extent. The City of Santa Rosa has made strong statements, with no details, about a desire to expedite plan-approval for homes too.

People don’t even have insurance payments yet, but they are starting to get ready to go home, or to re-create a home.

During the urban wildland fire, the county banded together and the outpouring of civilian help was inspiring. People with land in fire-free areas immediately offered to take large livestock; people donated water, clothing, food and bedding. People volunteered at all of the shelters. Those who could gave money. People are still giving money, planning fundraisers, and offering good and services.

We aren’t in the next phase, the recovery phase, yet. When we transit into it, it’s going to be interesting. There aren’t enough carpenters in Sonoma County to rebuild all the housing that is needed. Some of the carpenters we do have lost everything to the flames. Carpenters from other regions and states will be coming here. From the outside, what happens here will look like an economic boom. I doubt you’ll be able to get an oven, a washing machine, a dryer or a TV without a four-to-six week wait. And I don’t know if you’ll be able to get a new car without going onto a waiting list for months.

Rents will skyrocket. On the other side of our “recovery,” there will be fewer people of modest income in this county, and the people who manage to hang on will have it a little bit worse. But I think many of us won’t notice. We’ll breathe sighs of relief when we see new houses in those tracts or on those hills, and not think about the people who were pushed out.

Wineries were among the businesses struck by the fires. If you are a winery and your buildings burnt down, you may be fine after a tough year, because you’re insured, and can rebuild. If your vineyard burned, that’s another matter completely. It takes two to five years to bring a vineyard to maturity. And we don’t know yet what the ash is going to do to the soil.

I don’t know what will happen to many of the truck farmers who lived and grew in eastern Santa Rosa. There shouldn’t be a loss of a growing season, unless the soil has been damaged.

A lot of businesses lost at least a week of commerce because they closed. They closed because their staff were in shelters, having been evacuated, or because they themselves were evacuated, or because they had gone to help in shelters and distribution centers. A week doesn’t sound like much, but if you were retail or food service, you run pretty close to the margins on a good year. It never helps to lose a week.

Already, too, the rumormongers are hard at it. Depending on which side of the political spectrum you fall, culprits have already been assigned. Left-leaning rumormongers are blaming PG&E, which is a soft target after the San Bruno firestorm. Conservatives have decided that an undocumented immigrant started the fire(s). There is no evidence for either theory, yet, and investigations haven’t even started, but already there are radio ads in Sonoma County from a personal injury law firm blaming PG&E, and already acting Sheriff Giordano has had to issue a press release correcting misinformation propagated by ICE about a man who was arrested and being held in the county jail.

As things get better, and we move farther away from this life-changing tragedy, the rumors will get worse and people will revert to our more common natures; fault-finding, blaming and nitpicking. In the meantime, though, we are still doing well. We are still checking in with each other, still making donations, still offering “Thank yous” to the many first responders. We are gathering our strength. We’re getting ready to rebuild. We’re getting ready to get through this.

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