Fewer rebuilding projects began over the past month than in previous months in Kenwood and Glen Ellen, the Sonoma Valley communities hit hardest by the October wildfires, but an important milestone is nearing for the valley.
The first home to be rebuilt in the region will soon be completed.
“They are painting the house today,” Rick Cameron said in mid-November, recounting the progress on his O’Donnell Lane home. “Appliances are on order. Cabinets are being made.”
His is one of six homes taking shape on a hard-hit street in Glen Ellen, where 237 homes were destroyed in the fires. Only 29 are currently being rebuilt, and Cameron’s project, begun in June, is the first set for completion.
“We are looking forward to it,” he said. Barring unforeseen setbacks, the family expects to move into the three-bedroom house in January.
“Finally, we see light at the end of the tunnel,” Cameron said.
In Kenwood, where 139 homes were lost and about 30 rebuild are underway, only one project was started in the four-week period since Nov. 13. In Glen Ellen it was double that number of new projects — a total of two new rebuilds.
Hillside rebuilding slowing down
Progress has been slow in other valley communities, as well. Of the 104 homes destroyed in Bennett Valley and the surrounding ridgetop neighborhoods, only 21 rebuilds are underway, according to county records. In the outskirts of Sonoma, reconstruction is happening on four of the 38 residential properties that were burned over.
Overall, that amounts to about 90 projects in progress in the valley, where the government cleanup came after many other burn zones in the county.
“The problem with Glen Ellen was that we were one of the very last in the area to get our properties cleaned up,” said Cameron, referring to the debris cleanup overseen by the Army Corps of Engineers.
Also, it’s easier and less expensive to build on flat land, so the valley’s hilly topography has hampered some projects.
Obstacles common throughout the county include the scarcity of contractors and materials, insurance disputes and soaring costs for homeowners looking to make a go of it.
“Costs. It’s costs,” said Supervisor Susan Gorin, who represents the valley. She and her husband lost their Oakmont home in the Nuns fire. They have been renting another Oakmont home while sizing up whether or not to rebuild.
“The amount people are getting from their insurance companies far too often is not covering the costs, especially with the increase in building costs and the scarcity of labor,” she said.
Gorin said one cost-saving option some fire survivors are exploring is modular homes, pre-fabricated at the factory and designed to comply with local codes.
Such modular homes are “completely different from those of yesterday, and they must be done under state regulations,” Gorin said.
Modular homes cost around $110 a square foot to build, about a third to a sixth the price range that is now common for traditional stick-built homes, according to cost estimates provided by the National Association of Realtors and local contractor Bryan Lowney of New Creation Construction.
Two major factors: Modular rebuilds require far less labor and materials — two items in short supply with contractors stretched thin across hundreds of projects in Sonoma County.