Getting Back What You Lost — Rebuilding In A Wildfire Zone In northern California, homes are being rebuilt in the same area that burned to the ground in last year's Tubbs Fire. Despite the risk, a severe housing shortage in the area is forcing tough choices.
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Getting Back What You Lost — Rebuilding In A Wildfire Zone

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Getting Back What You Lost — Rebuilding In A Wildfire Zone

Getting Back What You Lost — Rebuilding In A Wildfire Zone

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's been a year since the most destructive fire in California history. The Tubbs Fire destroyed thousands of homes in Northern California. Now despite the risks, some are rebuilding in those very same areas. From member station KQED and NPR's energy and environment team, Lauren Sommer reports.

LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: It was late at night a year ago when Paul Lowenthal was called into work.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAUL LOWENTHAL: Mark west, fire on both sides of the road, houses burning...

SOMMER: He's assistant fire marshal in Santa Rosa, and the Tubbs Fire was moving fast.

LOWENTHAL: It was exploding at a rate that I would have never imagined would occur.

SOMMER: Hours later, he drove past his neighborhood.

LOWENTHAL: You couldn't actually make out individual homes in here. It just looked like an entire wall of fire - and then realized right away that my house was gone.

SOMMER: Lowenthal has spent the last year picking up the pieces. And a crucial question came up for him and the thousands of others. Should they rebuild? In California, wildfire is a fact of life. The Tubbs Fire was a repeat of a fire that burned the same area more than 50 years ago. But Lowenthal says the housing market was too tight.

LOWENTHAL: Quite honestly, it also had a lot to do with my daughter. This is where we were before the fires, and this is where we want to be after the fires.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONSTRUCTION)

SOMMER: Now the drywall is just about to go up at his new house.

LOWENTHAL: It appears it's not really moving as quickly as you'd like it to. But, yeah, you still know that the end's in sight.

SOMMER: And knowing what he knows about fire, he's making sure this home will be better protected with fire-resistant materials.

LOWENTHAL: Between the roof, the siding and things of that nature, it was definitely a step that I wanted to take.

SOMMER: But he doesn't have to take that step. California building codes require fire-resistant materials if you live in a designated wildfire zone. But Lowenthal's house wasn't technically in that zone before the fire, and neither were almost 2,000 other housing units. And so far, they're still not. I asked Santa Rosa's director of planning, David Guhin, about that.

DAVID GUHIN: We don't have an extra set of rules or requirements that we put on people to rebuild.

SOMMER: Guhin says, legally, the city couldn't change the building codes overnight, and it can't stop people from rebuilding.

GUHIN: We can't go in and take somebody's property. And that's not the role of a city.

SOMMER: Plus the city's housing shortage is even worse now.

GUHIN: We need to walk and chew gum at the same time. We are going to rebuild our community as fast and quickly and as efficiently as we possibly can. But we also have to build new homes as fast as we can.

SOMMER: He says the city is trying to entice developers to build downtown. But one big project is proposed for the hills - right where the fire swept through.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

SOMMER: So this is the 40-acre parcel where they want to put the 237 homes. The trees all around me are blackened almost all the way to the top.

As I'm standing there, after turning off my recorder, a man comes up to me.

He saw me looking up at a sign for the development and said, I definitely wouldn't want to live there. He didn't want me to record that though.

In February, the city council debated this project.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Public hearing - Round Barn Village project...

SOMMER: Some members liked that the townhomes would be fire resistant and would create much-needed housing. But one council member, Julie Combs, had doubts.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JULIE COMBS: I just think we need to not put more sleeping people in a fire hazard area.

SOMMER: Combs was the only no vote.

COMBS: I know I've heard stories of flooding along the Mississippi and thought why did they keep rebuilding there.

SOMMER: She says some insurance policies pay people less if they don't rebuild in the same place, or they just can't afford to go elsewhere. And the city doesn't have a way to buy people out, and some don't want to go.

COMBS: I think that in a disaster there's such a strong emotional pull to get what you lost back.

SOMMER: That pull means it's the hardest time to make tough decisions about the future. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Sommer in San Francisco.

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