Survivors of Northern California wildfires learn to live with 'new normal' of uncertainty in rebuilding

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Opinion

Jessie Whitesides, a principal architect for Asquared Studios, volunteered at the American Institute of Architects booth in the Santa Rosa local assistance center in the weeks after the October 2017 wildfires.


This is part of a report Oct. 8 on the one-year anniversary of the October 2017 wildfires that forced tens of thousands to flee quickly and destroyed thousands of homes. Read more personal accounts from business and civic leaders as well as updates on the economic recovery.

As we approach our one year anniversary to the devastating fires that wreaked havoc on our beautiful North Bay Counties, our built environments, and most importantly our lives, we have adjusted to a way of life I think we can call the “New Normal”.

The New Normal is a term I use like a broad stroke of a brush to sweep over life after the 2017 complex fires. If I think back to the days, weeks, and months following Oct. 8, 2017, I remember an intense responsibility to provide help to those in need by volunteering, completing and sharing valuable research, and re-envisioning how my Architectural Studio provides professional services. Buried within all of this there was an apparent distinction made between life “before” the fires and life “after” the fires.

Life “After” the fires was immediately full of an overwhelming sense of humility.

What I found is that the event caused life to slow down, and for people to notice each other with a deeper sense of responsibility. Everyone had a story, and it felt important to allow everyone to get their story out.

It was emotional. It was surreal. It was powerful.

This power drove meaningful conversations between people and professionals which would have had no other instigator, and as an architect, I found myself explaining our professional responsibilities, the architectural process, and the value of our profession to people who suffered loss on a daily basis.

The recognition that everyone was grossly under-insured to re-build in the current economy of the North Bay was immediate.

Many of the conversations we had with people established that they were being offered less than half the cost of what it will take to rebuild the most basic of structures that they can call home.

To us, that meant that the challenge was on, and the challenge has stayed on over the course of the year. The complicated nature by which the architecture and building industry typically operates has become even more complicated by the aggravation of a shortage of everything: People, resources, materials and time, to name a few.

The shortage of these key elements have caused building prices to sky-rocket, nearly doubled from what we would have estimated “before” the fires. Material resources are running low, labor costs are rising, and the schedules by which we can design and build a project have been extended by months.

Our professional community is rising in the face of this adversity, but our challenges are far from over. Over the last couple of months we have learned that the re-building dreams of many are being squashed by construction bids that overwhelm the budgets their homes have been designed to achieve.

When this happens, the victims of the fires are forced to face a new reality, the reality that they will not be able to re-build; consequently, one year later, they find themselves in the same position as they did one year ago….with no idea what their future looks like.

For our studio, this is not an acceptable result, and so we continue to reflect on what we (and our profession) can offer our community. We have widened our views, put extra time into researching building alternatives, and find ourselves investigating alternative materials to be used in new and meaningful ways.

What we have been given in return is gratitude for keeping the dream alive! Most importantly we approach this profound anniversary with the strength of new and lasting relationships with the people of our community.

Opinion

Jessie Whitesides, a principal architect for Asquared Studios, volunteered at the American Institute of Architects booth in the Santa Rosa local assistance center in the weeks after the October 2017 wildfires.


This is part of a report Oct. 8 on the one-year anniversary of the October 2017 wildfires that forced tens of thousands to flee quickly and destroyed thousands of homes. Read more personal accounts from business and civic leaders as well as updates on the economic recovery.

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