It’s been nearly four months since the October wildfires, but how many months will it take before the housing rebuilding effort gathers steam and direction?

What is clear already, say experts, is that rebuilding the homes will be a huge task because of the scale. Sonoma County lost about 5 percent of its housing: over 5,100 dwellings, including almost 3,000 in Santa Rosa. More than 400 were burned in Mendocino and Lake counties, and over 250 went up in flames in Napa and Solano counties.

Will all those homes, or close to those numbers be rebuilt?

“The fires will not create a tsunami of work, because we probably will not see as many rebuilds as we were expecting,” said Rob Cantu, president of Western Builders in Santa Rosa. “The number of projects is plagued by the inherent insurance disparities we’ve seen.

For-sale signs have been popping up on properties here and there in the burned North Bay burned areas. One challenge for a number of victims is their insurance policies may not have replacement-value levels to meet today’s construction costs and often include limited timeframes to cover living expenses such as rent. There has been legislation introduced in Sacramento to address the time limit, and Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones has convinced insurers to be more flexible.

“There will be more work with fires, but management of all the projects will be the issue,” Cantu said.

He also is part of the Construction Coalition, a local group of industry figures who among their efforts over the past several years have been trying to speed the flow of projects through the permitting in Santa Rosa and the county of Sonoma.

The expected magnitude of rebuild permits prompted Santa Rosa to open its Resilient City Rebuilding Permit Center in late November. The county of Sonoma has developed a checklist for applicants to follow before submitting, for quick turnaround, and plans to open its own special processing center Feb. 13.

But it may take three to six more months to know how many homes will get rebuilt, according to Keith Woods, CEO of North Coast Builders Exchange, which represents Sonoma, Mendocino, Napa and Lake counties.

“We are in the era of the great unknowns,” said Keith Woods, North Coast Builders Exchange CEO. “The toughest thing to ask is for homeowners to be patient.”

Here are some of the unknowns he sees that could stymie the pace of the rebuild:

How many homeowners want to rebuild?

How many are uninsured or underinsured?

How many burned properties will be picked up by developers?

What will be the cost of materials?

Will there be enough labor to rebuild as fast as homeowners like?

How quickly will county and city officials be processing permits over time?

“It will be slow in 2018 and then significantly ramped up in 2019,” Woods said.


Julia Donohoe, who is leading the American Institute of Architects Redwood Empire chapter committee on recovery efforts, is hoping that 70 percent to 80 percent of the victims will rebuild, and has been advocating for neighborhood-scale reconstruction.

“With 40 percent renters in Coffey Park, I’m not sure we can get to a 70 percent rebuild, but we will see when permits are pulled,” Donohoe said.

Synergy Homes, Gallaher Homes and Tuxhorn Homes are local developers who have been approaching Santa Rosa residents about rebuild projects. APM Homes, DeNova Homes from the East Bay and Stonefield Development from Southern California have been talking about significant rebuild projects.

But last week, DeNova sent a letter to homeowners that it was dropping plans for rebuilds. The East Bay-based company said its construction partners could not guarantee the “resources that are necessary to implement our cost-effective production model.”

Donohoe, who worked with Lake County owners who lost homes in the 2015 Valley fire, is encouraged by Stonefield’s track record with rebuilding the Scripps Ranch development near San Diego after 312 homes were destroyed. The homeowners’ association brought in 53 builders, and in two years 273 homes were completed, with 98 percent back up by the three-year mark.

Stonefield has signed up roughly 80 homeowners in Mark West Estates north of Santa Rosa, and Larkfield Estates is looking to get as many as 30 on board with that builder, Donohoe said.


“The wonderful thing about Napa is it has had to respond to floods and earthquakes and now fire,” said Sidney Sweeney, executive director of the East Bay chapter of the AIA. “The Valley fire kind of got them prepared. They have a great team in place that sprung into action, opening a local assistance center to help people immediately. The building and planning departments knew what they needed to do right away to get permits fast-tracked.”

It’s similar to the permit-streaming programs the city of Santa Rosa and the county of Sonoma have in motion for rebuilds. In Napa County, permits to rebuild the same structure that burned, with code updates, can be handled quickly, Sweeney noted. Permits may be issued right over the counter at the building department.

“But the number of structures burned in Napa is nothing like in Sonoma (County),” Sweeney said. “There weren’t large tracts of developer homes that burned.”


Construction industry groups are planning large outreach efforts in the next few months to those looking to rebuild their homes.

At the Sonoma County Home & Garden Show, set for March 16–18 in Santa Rosa, North Coast Builders Exchange has reserved a corner of the exhibition space for a Meet the Builders booth.

With 500 booths in nearly 90,000 square feet of the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, the 30th annual show is mainly a draw for thousands of do-it-yourselfers and those dreaming of remodels.

But the builder group plans to have a resource guide completed for the event, showing which of its nearly 800 licensed contractors and subcontractors are available to tackle fire rebuilds, according to Woods.

Some local architects have been frustrated by talk about mass rebuilding based on pre-existing house plans and community design. Now, they are making a public pitch to affected homeowners to consider a greener path to restoration.

On Feb. 23 at the Santa Rosa Veterans’ Hall is set to be the free-admission Rebuild Green Expo. It’s organized by the Rebuild Green Coalition, a group of building professionals specializing in green and sustainable methods and materials that formed late last year.

“Mostly, it’s about showing people that green and sustainable approaches are not only viable and affordable, they are also healthier and offer better resilience for communities to survive disasters with less disruption,” said Steve Sheldon, one of the event organizers, an architect and builder with Ibis Builds of Sebastopol, and representative of the U.S. Green Building Council’s Redwood Empire chapter. “We’ll also be offering folks the chance to meet and speak to the experts about their own home designs while learning about all aspects of green building.”

Expo organizers plan to have on hand architects, engineers, energy providers and consultants, landscape designers, contractors and materials suppliers to talk about fire-resistant materials and methods, rooftop solar and microgrid systems, healthful homes and interiors, resilient communities, defensible and drought-resistant landscapes, zero-net energy, efficient home design, safe induction cooking, financing green building, accessory dwelling units and battery storage for homes.

In a similar vein, North Coast Builders Exchange has scheduled recovery-related roundtable meetings with its supplier members, to be held Jan. 30, Feb. 28 and March 22.

Jeff Quackenbush (jquackenbush@busjrnl.com, 707-521-4256) covers the wine business and commercial construction and real estate.