US & World

Tough choice for wildfire survivors: Rebuild fast or better?

TOPSHOT - Tanya Williams (R) consoles her neighbour Dawn Lockhart (L) as they view their burned homes in the Coffey Park area of Santa Rosa, California, on October 20, 2017.  
Residents are being allowed to return to their burned homes on October 20 to grieve and search through remains. Around 5,700 homes and businesses have been destroyed by the fires, the deadliest in California's history. / AFP PHOTO / JOSH EDELSON        (Photo credit should read JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - Tanya Williams (R) consoles her neighbour Dawn Lockhart (L) as they view their burned homes in the Coffey Park area of Santa Rosa, California, on October 20, 2017. Residents are being allowed to return to their burned homes on October 20 to grieve and search through remains. Around 5,700 homes and businesses have been destroyed by the fires, the deadliest in California's history. / AFP PHOTO / JOSH EDELSON (Photo credit should read JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)
JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images

The most destructive complex of wildfires in California history wreaked most of its damage and deaths among housing subdivisions in this San Francisco Bay Area bedroom town, leaving survivors with little but white ash and hard choices: Rebuild quickly as things were, rebuild defensively against future fires, or abandon some burned neighborhoods entirely as lethal mistakes in the country's most wildfire-prone state.

With $3.3 billion in insured losses so far and 8,900 homes and structures destroyed, the scale of loss from October's Northern California wildfires is unusual, but the devastated areas had burned before and almost certainly will again, fire ecologists say.

The weeks since have given rise to conflicting desires for rebuilding.

SANTA ROSA, CA - OCTOBER 23:  Ben Hernandez sifts through the remains of his Coffey Park home that was destroyed by the Tubbs Fire on October 23, 2017 in Santa Rosa, California. Residents are returning to their homes after a fast moving and deadly widlfire destroyed 8,400 structures and claimed the lives of at least 42 people.  (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
SANTA ROSA, CA - OCTOBER 23: Ben Hernandez sifts through the remains of his Coffey Park home that was destroyed by the Tubbs Fire on October 23, 2017 in Santa Rosa, California. Residents are returning to their homes after a fast moving and deadly widlfire destroyed 8,400 structures and claimed the lives of at least 42 people. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Many families are eager to rebuild as before, and local officials have vowed to speed them along. Wildfire experts, meanwhile, are urging California officials to consider seizing the moment to strengthen regulations.

If authorities take bigger steps toward fire-safety now, "when the next fire comes, which it will, the horrific impacts will be avoided," said Caitlin Cornwall, a research biologist with a Sonoma County nonprofit and one of the hundreds of survivors, regulators and developers cramming meetings and town halls to plot out recovery. The fires that started Oct. 8 burned one in every 10 acres in Sonoma County, a territory stretching from the Pacific to redwood groves to commuter cities and wine valleys.

Residents search for an engagement ring at a burned residence in Santa Rosa, California on October 20, 2017.
Residents are being allowed to return to their burned homes on October 20 to grieve and search through remains. Around 5,700 homes and businesses have been destroyed by the fires, the deadliest in California's history. / AFP PHOTO / JOSH EDELSON        (Photo credit should read JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Residents search for an engagement ring at a burned residence in Santa Rosa, California on October 20, 2017. Residents are being allowed to return to their burned homes on October 20 to grieve and search through remains. Around 5,700 homes and businesses have been destroyed by the fires, the deadliest in California's history. / AFP PHOTO / JOSH EDELSON (Photo credit should read JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)
JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images

Following wildfires, urban areas tend to build up more densely despite the remaining fire risk, and residents tend to build in only as many fire-defense measures as regulations require, researchers with the U.S. Forest Service and University of Wisconsin found from studying rebuilding after past U.S. wildfires.

Rebuilding also often takes years longer than residents realize. In California wildfires studied, just 35 percent of buildings lost were rebuilt within five years, the researchers determined.

SANTA ROSA, CA - OCTOBER 23:  A message is written on driveway of a Coffey Park home that was destroyed by the Tubbs Fire on October 23, 2017 in Santa Rosa, California. Residents are returning to their homes after a fast moving and deadly widlfire destroyed 8,400 structures and claimed the lives of at least 42 people.  (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
SANTA ROSA, CA - OCTOBER 23: A message is written on driveway of a Coffey Park home that was destroyed by the Tubbs Fire on October 23, 2017 in Santa Rosa, California. Residents are returning to their homes after a fast moving and deadly widlfire destroyed 8,400 structures and claimed the lives of at least 42 people. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

"We found people generally don't change their behavior in terms of how they rebuild, what materials they use, or how they landscape, if there aren't incentives in place," said Anu Kramer, a wildfire-rebuilding researcher at UW.

The motivation to quickly rebuild often leaves little time for authorities to impose tougher fire standards, Kramer said.

Kassidy Sharp holds part of a tea set given to her by her grandmother and found in the burned remains of her home in Santa Rosa, California on October 20, 2017.  The tea set read
Kassidy Sharp holds part of a tea set given to her by her grandmother and found in the burned remains of her home in Santa Rosa, California on October 20, 2017. The tea set read "lady bug lady bug fly away home, your house is on fire, your children are alone." Residents are being allowed to return to their burned homes on October 20 to grieve and search through remains. Around 5,700 homes and businesses have been destroyed by the fires, the deadliest in California's history. / AFP PHOTO / JOSH EDELSON (Photo credit should read JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)
JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images

In the hard-hit Santa Rosa neighborhoods of Fountaingrove and Coffey Park - where the fires obliterated block after block of homes, as well as big box-stores and hotels - some residents already are banding together to quickly rebuild houses using their old blueprints.

Flames spread fast among houses crowded together on hilltops for million-dollar views over the coastal ridges. Homeowners bent on getting as much house as possible on their lots can make them more vulnerable in wildfires, experts say.

A resident takes pause while searching through debris at his burned home in Santa Rosa, California on October 20, 2017.  
Residents are being allowed to return to their burned homes on October 20 to grieve and search through remains. Around 5,700 homes and businesses have been destroyed by the fires, the deadliest in California's history. / AFP PHOTO / JOSH EDELSON        (Photo credit should read JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)
A resident takes pause while searching through debris at his burned home in Santa Rosa, California on October 20, 2017. Residents are being allowed to return to their burned homes on October 20 to grieve and search through remains. Around 5,700 homes and businesses have been destroyed by the fires, the deadliest in California's history. / AFP PHOTO / JOSH EDELSON (Photo credit should read JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)
JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images

In Fountaingrove as elsewhere now, many just want to "try and get houses rebuilt on the same footprint for the least amount of money," said David Rust, a retired housing contractor who wore a white hazmat suit this week to pick through the few identifiable lumps of metal in the ruins of his family's home.

The affluent neighborhood was an acknowledged fire-risk area in a state that the national Insurance Information Institute trade group says is the nation's most wildfire-prone.

Residents sift through burned out remains at a property in Santa Rosa, California on October 20, 2017.  
Residents are being allowed to return to their burned homes on October 20 to grieve and search through remains. Around 5,700 homes and businesses have been destroyed by the fires, the deadliest in California's history. / AFP PHOTO / JOSH EDELSON        (Photo credit should read JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Residents sift through burned out remains at a property in Santa Rosa, California on October 20, 2017. Residents are being allowed to return to their burned homes on October 20 to grieve and search through remains. Around 5,700 homes and businesses have been destroyed by the fires, the deadliest in California's history. / AFP PHOTO / JOSH EDELSON (Photo credit should read JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)
JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images

Santa Rosa, a more affordable alternative to San Francisco, saw its population rise by about 10 percent in 10 years and housing pushed into formerly open areas where wildfire previously could strike without threatening humans.

Mayor Chris Coursey has worried about the loss of 5 percent of Santa Rosa's housing stock in the fires and stresses that he wants to make rebuilding as easy as possible for homeowners.

SANTA ROSA, CA - OCTOBER 23:  Renee Hernandez looks over the remains of her Coffey Park home that was destroyed by the Tubbs Fire on October 23, 2017 in Santa Rosa, California. Residents are returning to their homes after a fast moving and deadly widlfire destroyed 8,400 structures and claimed the lives of at least 42 people.  (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
SANTA ROSA, CA - OCTOBER 23: Renee Hernandez looks over the remains of her Coffey Park home that was destroyed by the Tubbs Fire on October 23, 2017 in Santa Rosa, California. Residents are returning to their homes after a fast moving and deadly widlfire destroyed 8,400 structures and claimed the lives of at least 42 people. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

"People have a right to rebuild what they had, if that's what they want to do," Coursey told a meeting last month. "I don't think we have any business getting in their way, legal or otherwise."

Sonoma County Supervisor Susan Gorin, who lost her home on the vulnerable edge of a housing development near the vineyards in Sonoma Valley, is among those asking if it makes sense not to rebuild in fire-prone neighborhoods like Fountaingrove. She is quick to add that is a decision for Santa Rosa city officials, though.

Ben Pedersen displays his partially burned high school yearbook that he found at his burned home in the Coffey Park area of Santa Rosa, California, on October 20, 2017.
Residents are being allowed to return to their burned homes on October 20 to grieve and search through remains. Around 5,700 homes and businesses have been destroyed by the fires, the deadliest in California's history. / AFP PHOTO / JOSH EDELSON        (Photo credit should read JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Ben Pedersen displays his partially burned high school yearbook that he found at his burned home in the Coffey Park area of Santa Rosa, California, on October 20, 2017. Residents are being allowed to return to their burned homes on October 20 to grieve and search through remains. Around 5,700 homes and businesses have been destroyed by the fires, the deadliest in California's history. / AFP PHOTO / JOSH EDELSON (Photo credit should read JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)
JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images

Those neighborhoods "lost the largest number of structures, but I am not going to say you cannot rebuild," Gorin said.

Newer building codes already in place in California will force some new defense measures when people rebuild. They include a 2010 law mandating sprinklers even in single-family homes.

Michelle Ross (L) and Stephanie Staykow (R) pose for a photo while holding their baptism crosses they found in the remains of their burned home in Santa Rosa, California on October 20, 2017. 
Residents are being allowed to return to their burned homes on October 20 to grieve and search through remains. Around 5,700 homes and businesses have been destroyed by the fires, the deadliest in California's history. / AFP PHOTO / JOSH EDELSON        (Photo credit should read JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Michelle Ross (L) and Stephanie Staykow (R) pose for a photo while holding their baptism crosses they found in the remains of their burned home in Santa Rosa, California on October 20, 2017. Residents are being allowed to return to their burned homes on October 20 to grieve and search through remains. Around 5,700 homes and businesses have been destroyed by the fires, the deadliest in California's history. / AFP PHOTO / JOSH EDELSON (Photo credit should read JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)
JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images

How insurance companies respond to the disaster also will be critical. Some homeowners could find it harder or impossible to get home insurance, state insurance commissioner David Jones said this week.

Fire experts point to a host of defensive measures homeowners could adopt, from fire-resistant roofing and screens that keep embers out of attics to keeping flammable vegetation far from homes. Communities require local-level planning, such as steps to discourage crowding of structures and encourage evacuation procedures, experts say.

Car collector Gary Dower holds up a photo showing his 1992 Dodge Stealth before it burned at his home in Santa Rosa, California on October 20, 2017. 
Residents are being allowed to return to their burned homes on October 20 to grieve and search through remains. Around 5,700 homes and businesses have been destroyed by the fires, the deadliest in California's history. / AFP PHOTO / JOSH EDELSON        (Photo credit should read JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Car collector Gary Dower holds up a photo showing his 1992 Dodge Stealth before it burned at his home in Santa Rosa, California on October 20, 2017. Residents are being allowed to return to their burned homes on October 20 to grieve and search through remains. Around 5,700 homes and businesses have been destroyed by the fires, the deadliest in California's history. / AFP PHOTO / JOSH EDELSON (Photo credit should read JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)
JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images

Many homeowners also will confront the reality that their insurance payouts won't cover the additional cost of fire-proofing or other safety upgrades.

Land-use planning that could bar building in the most vulnerable areas is harder to pull off politically, fire researchers note.

A sign of resilience is seen posted on a tree in a fire-destroyed neighborhood of Santa Rosa, California on October 20, 2017. 
Residents are being allowed to return to their burned homes on October 20 to grieve and search through remains. Around 5,700 homes and businesses have been destroyed by the fires, the deadliest in California's history. / AFP PHOTO / JOSH EDELSON        (Photo credit should read JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)
A sign of resilience is seen posted on a tree in a fire-destroyed neighborhood of Santa Rosa, California on October 20, 2017. Residents are being allowed to return to their burned homes on October 20 to grieve and search through remains. Around 5,700 homes and businesses have been destroyed by the fires, the deadliest in California's history. / AFP PHOTO / JOSH EDELSON (Photo credit should read JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)
JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images

Ultimately, "all of us as taxpayers are sort of picking up the bill in one way or the other" for wildfires, said Max Moritz, a Santa Barbara-based wildfire management researcher. If the public is subsidizing the costs, it should also have a say through regulations to determine where and how people can build, he said.

Brandon Bell calls out for his missing cats Pumpkin and Rasta as he walks with a dish of pet food through his burned neighborhood in Santa Rosa, California on October 20, 2017.
Residents are being allowed to return to their burned homes on October 20 to grieve and search through remains. Around 5,700 homes and businesses have been destroyed by the fires, the deadliest in California's history. / AFP PHOTO / JOSH EDELSON        (Photo credit should read JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Brandon Bell calls out for his missing cats Pumpkin and Rasta as he walks with a dish of pet food through his burned neighborhood in Santa Rosa, California on October 20, 2017. Residents are being allowed to return to their burned homes on October 20 to grieve and search through remains. Around 5,700 homes and businesses have been destroyed by the fires, the deadliest in California's history. / AFP PHOTO / JOSH EDELSON (Photo credit should read JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)
JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images

In Fountaingrove, David and Shelly Rust are thinking of rebuilding on their fire-leveled lot, then selling and moving away from California and its wildfires. David Rust is planning a fire-resistant wilderness home, with a metal roof, flame-resistant siding and a gel that releases from the roof ridge to douse hot spots.

TOPSHOT - Byron (R) and Joanne Bartlett (L) pose for a photo in front of a sign they made for firefighters at as they search for remains at their burned residence in the Coffey Park area of Santa Rosa, California on October 20, 2017. 
Residents are being allowed to return to their burned homes on October 20 to grieve and search through remains. Around 5,700 homes and businesses have been destroyed by the fires, the deadliest in California's history. / AFP PHOTO / JOSH EDELSON        (Photo credit should read JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - Byron (R) and Joanne Bartlett (L) pose for a photo in front of a sign they made for firefighters at as they search for remains at their burned residence in the Coffey Park area of Santa Rosa, California on October 20, 2017. Residents are being allowed to return to their burned homes on October 20 to grieve and search through remains. Around 5,700 homes and businesses have been destroyed by the fires, the deadliest in California's history. / AFP PHOTO / JOSH EDELSON (Photo credit should read JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)
JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images

"I honestly thought it was more suburban here than could ever be taken over by an out-of-control wildfire," David Rust said.

SANTA ROSA, CA - OCTOBER 23:  An American flag hangs in front of a home in the Coffey Park neighborhood that was destroyed by the Tubbs Fire on October 23, 2017 in Santa Rosa, California. Residents are returning to their homes after a fast moving and deadly widlfire destroyed 8,400 structures and claimed the lives of at least 42 people. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
SANTA ROSA, CA - OCTOBER 23: An American flag hangs in front of a home in the Coffey Park neighborhood that was destroyed by the Tubbs Fire on October 23, 2017 in Santa Rosa, California. Residents are returning to their homes after a fast moving and deadly widlfire destroyed 8,400 structures and claimed the lives of at least 42 people. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

 

Associated Press photographer Jeff Chiu contributed to this report.

Correction: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized researcher Max Moritz's work. Moritz works in wildfire management. The story has been updated.