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Mar 14, 2018

Built to burn

Co-produced with PRX Logo

Climate change has made wildfires across the United States hotter, bigger and more frequent. But none of these factors fully explains why 2017 was the deadliest and most destructive wildfire season in California history. Most of the dozens of lives and thousands of homes were lost in neighborhoods that didn’t exist a few decades ago. Now the question is whether stronger building codes and fireproof building materials can make these neighborhoods safe, or whether officials need to reconsider their approach to building where the risk of wildfire is highest.

Reporters Eric Sagara and Patrick Michels tell the story of the hilltop Santa Rosa neighborhood of Fountaingrove in Sonoma County. They investigate how this neighborhood came to be built in the path of California’s deadliest wildfire – and what’s being done to prevent it from burning all over again.

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Read: Built to burn


Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The John S. And James L. Knight Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Reveal is a co-production of The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.


Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.
Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.
Wildfires used to come around once a year, wildfire season. But lately they've been happening all year round and they're getting bigger and they're burning hotter. 2017 was the deadliest year on record for wildfires in California. The most destructive of those fires was the Tubbs fire in wine country. It killed 22 people and burned down more than 5,000 buildings. Most of that happened in Sonoma County's biggest city, Santa Rosa, in neighborhoods like Coffey Park and Fountain Grove. But the fire started miles outside of town. It came through hills that, months later, are a mix of blackened oak trees and the first new shoots of green grass.
It's weird. It's in a state of death and rebirth at the same time.
I drove out to a clearing between these hills to meet someone who saw the fire coming. His name is John Founts. He's 70 years old and, since he was a kid, he's worked out here at his family's mountain home ranch, cabins and barns that were turned into a bed and breakfast and retreat center.
John, what are we looking at here?
John: This was the lodge.
Al Letson: It was a three-story concrete house with a chimney made of petrified wood. Now it's just a chimney and a pile of twisted rebar and broken cement.
John: We just did the inventory and, boy, doing inventory really is a tearful thing. You, in your mind, walk into each room. Okay, what was in there? It was very emotional when they came and tore it down.
Al Letson: How long ago was that?
John: Maybe two weeks, a week. Recently.
Al Letson: It's still fresh.
John: Yeah.
Al Letson: But as hard as it was to lose the ranch, it wasn't unexpected. Everyone in John's family trains to fight wildfires. They even have their own firetruck because the ranch? It's burned before.
John: This is the third time.
Al Letson: The first time was in the '30s, before John was born. But the second time was in 1964. This is a newsreel from back then.
Speaker 3: The worst forest fires in the history of northern California have laid waste a quarter of a million acres.
Al Letson: More than half a dozen buildings burned. But John, still in high school, was able to use water from a nearby swimming pool to help save the cabins his grandfather built.
The 1964 fire and last year's Tubbs fire both started just a few miles from John's ranch, and both of them blew through the hills to Santa Rosa. In fact, if you draw an outline of the 1964 fire on a map, it's kind of eerie.
John: Right. Exactly the same pattern as the one this year. Then it burned almost identical.
Al Letson: But with one key difference. Even though these two fires burned the same land, the fire in the 1960s didn't kill anybody or burn nearly as many homes. There's one obvious reason.
When the fires came through in the '60s, I'm sure that the community of Santa Rosa was not built up the way it is now.
John: There was almost nobody. In fact, Fountain Grove was not built. Coffey Park was a hayfield.
Al Letson: Coffey Park lost more than 1,400 homes in last year's fire. Fountain Grove lost more than 1,700.
John: They'll be allowed to rebuild. They're gonna do it again. But a fire will come again there.
Al Letson: Do you think it's crazy for them to rebuild there?
John: Yeah, I do. At least the way they had it.
Al Letson: The way they had it, Fountain Grove was a dense neighborhood of hilltop McMansions with Santa Rosa at their feet and rolling mountains in the distance. But now? It's full of big, yellow machines clearing the last chunks of McMansion off of cement foundations.
I mean, it looks like the type of ruins that you would see in Greece or something.
Those ruins tell a story, if you know wildfires like Reveal data reporter, Eric Sagara.
Eric: You see down there? There's still an actual part of a building standing down there.
Al Letson: Yeah.


Eric: There's not a huge amount of space there.


Al Letson: If you're worried about wildfires, you wanna keep plenty of space between you and anything that will burn. That means bushes and trees, but also other houses.


Eric: If you have a huge house on a small lot, you don't have a whole lot of space to clear and defend yourself. If bushes and houses are wildfire rocket fuel, this steep hillside is like a wildfire launchpad because heat rises. But if the fire risk here is so obvious, how did it all get built in the first place? For that, Eric and I pulled in Reveal's Patrick Michaels.


Patrick: Well, the development in Fountain Grove sort of begins in the early '70s when Hewlett Packard wants to move up from Palo Alto and put a tech campus there.


Speaker 6: This is the Hewlett Packard HP65, the first fully programmable pocket-size calculator.


Patrick: Hewlett Packard built the campus on part of it and the rest of it was basically worker housing. That's what started this building spree out on the hillside. One after another, these master plan communities started popping up on the hills above Santa Rosa.


Eric: You can actually see this from the air.


Al Letson: That's Eric Sagara again.


Eric: We have an animation here to show you how that growth looks.


Al Letson: Okay, what am I looking at here?


Eric: Up here-


Al Letson: Eric shows me a time lapse birds-eye view of Santa Rosa.


Eric: If you look right where this dark spot is, that is Fountain Grove.


Al Letson: On those dark green hills at the edge of the city, white dots and lines start appearing. They're houses and streets. In the late '90s, they take over.


That's a massive amount of growth in relatively a short period of time.


Eric: Right.


Al Letson: Eric, all of these houses are going up in a fire-prone wilderness area. Is that unique to this part of California?


Eric: No, it actually isn't. It's actually pretty common throughout the country. This fire-prone area that we're talking about, the wild land urban interface, this is where homes and vegetation collide and mix together. Sonoma County, the population in these areas grew by about 20% over the course of two decades. That's actually right at the national average.


Al Letson: Patrick, what about the people who move into these type of houses? I mean, did they know about the fire danger?


Patrick: Well, not really. We met with a woman named Susan Goren, who moved in in the '90s.


Susan: Welcome to the temporary permanent home while we rebuild.


Patrick: Her own home had just burned down.


Susan: Those photos were rescued.


Patrick: Her husband had a job at Hewlett Packard and she and her husband were both big outdoors people.


Susan: The natural beauty of Sonoma County is what really pulled us here. Then our family was growing and we needed a larger house. Sadly, that house and that entire neighborhood is gone.


Patrick: That was Fountain Grove.


Susan: That was in Fountain Grove.


Patrick: Living on this heavily treed hillside, that was really what they were there for.


Susan: An interesting fact is that one of the oak trees had been incorporated in the deck. In other words, the deck was built around the oak tree and you could see the scars up the limbs of this very old oak tree. It was from the Hamly fire 50 years ago.


Patrick: That was her first clue that there had been any fire there before.


Susan: I said, "Oh, well, that's interesting piece of history. Okay." But it never dawned on me that it would be repeated. Was I aware of the fire risk then? Not as strongly as I am now, for sure.


Al Letson: She's strongly aware the fire risk now because her house burned down.


Patrick: Right. But also because now she's a Sonoma County Supervisor. In that job, part of her job is to use what she knows about fire risk to help determine what people build where in Sonoma County.


Al Letson: How is she doing that? What is Susan Goren doing about people who wanna build homes in these fire-prone areas?


Patrick: Well, we sat down with her and we asked her.


If you can see a circumstance where wildfire risk on some land is just so extreme that you as a supervisor would feel comfortable not allowing construction on there, period.


Susan: It's pretty hard for us, any decision-maker, to say to any property owner that, sorry, we are not going to rebuild large swaths of Sonoma County. I think that is not fair to the homeowners and it's not feasible for the policy-makers.


Patrick: What they're dealing with, apart from the immediate disaster of the fire, is that everyone who was displaced in the fire, those are all taxpayers, as well. The city is facing a multi-million dollar shortfall in its budget. They wanna get people rebuilding, made whole, and back into their homes in Santa Rosa as quickly as possible. They even set up an office to expedite the permitting process for people who wanted to rebuild their homes. We visited there right when they were just putting it together, basically.


They're drilling keyboards onto the desks.


Speaker 8: It's really exciting.


Patrick: There's a woman I talked to. She saw the devastation and the way that she thought of to help was to join the permitting office so that she could help people with the paperwork to get their homes built as fast as they could.


Speaker 8: The key to rebuilding is gonna be streamlining permitting. Everybody understood that early on. We want somebody to rebuild on that property. We need that.


Al Letson: It sounds like the local government's reaction to this devastating fire has actually been to accelerate building to get people back in their homes.


Eric: That's not a unique sentiment. I've actually covered multiple fires and the recovery process afterwards. That instinct to rebuild and rebuild quickly is actually fairly common, but it's not just rebuilding. It's developers who are coming in and seeing opportunity in these scorched lots. Researchers have found evidence to suggest that new home construction can actually outpace rebuilding efforts after a wildfire.


Al Letson: Okay, is anything different happening when it comes to this new development?


Patrick: Well, we didn't have to wait too long to see that because almost immediately after the fire, there was a development called Round Barn Village. Before this building can get started, the city council needs to decide to change the land use from commercial to residential. But it would put about 237 townhomes in the hills adjacent to Fountain Grove.


We actually went to check out the site where they're planning to build these homes. It's an open field with a parking lot in the middle of it.


Julie: We'll stand under the shade of a birch tree.


Patrick: When we got there, we met a city council member named Julie Combs.


Julie: What we're looking at is trees that have black bark. They still have branches but the branches are all brown from being singed and scorched.


Patrick: It was a really just eerie sight. She was saying that this is a place in particular that she didn't feel comfortable letting people build because she felt responsible for people.


Julie: We're not too far from the place where the fire jumped six lanes of highway and two access roads to burn down a Kmart. I have a lot of concerns about a residential project in this area. It always worries me to have people sleeping in a high fire hazard area.


Al Letson: What happened when this new development came up in front of the city council?


Patrick: Alright, this was the moment that we'd been looking forward to throughout the reporting of this. This was the first big test of new development after the fire. We went up there for the city council meeting that started at 4:00. About 9:30, they got around to this question.


Speaker 10: 15.2. Public hearing. Round Barn Village project.


Patrick: We heard from the developer.


Speaker 11: All of your exteriors, your doors, your windows.


Patrick: They described all of the fire-safe technology they were gonna be using.


Speaker 11: All glazed.


Patrick: Scott Moon, the fire marshal from Santa Rosa, made the case that the new building standards in high fire risk areas are so strong that-


Scott: I think that will play into the resiliency of our community as we do move forward.


Patrick: We can safely build homes now.


Eric: That seems to be the prevailing sentiment. Stuff like fire-resistant materials, double-paned windows, screens on your vents, but I'm not sure that building codes would have saved homes in this particular fire. About 94% of the homes that were built to the standards that that fire marshal was talking about still burned. Our analysis found that there was 261 homes that had all these things in place. All but 16 of them were destroyed or damaged.


Patrick: Despite that fact, the fire marshal's emphasis on new fire codes really seemed to sway some of the city council members at that meeting.


Scott: I'm happy to, with our discussion tonight with those commitments allow us to move on to the next step.


Patrick: There was just one city council member, Julie Combs, who stood her ground and said-


Julie: We are setting a precedent to build more new housing in a fire hazard area when we vote today. I cannot support this thing.


Patrick: There was this anticlimactic moment where the clerk flips on the voting and the lights pop up and it was six green ones and one red one.


Speaker 10: It passes six to one.


Patrick: That was it. They approved it and were on to the next order of business.


Speaker 13: [inaudible 00:14:11] resolution of the council of the city of Santa Rosa-


Al Letson: After this city council vote and Julie Combs, she was the one against six. What was her reaction?


Speaker 14: Why are you still here?


Patrick: We caught up with her after the meeting right outside. What she said she was thinking about was taking the big view.


Julie: This is only the first new housing development. It's not the last. We're going to see more development, more housing, proposed for the fire hazard area. We just blanked. The next group is gonna say, "Well, you let them go, why aren't you letting us go?"


Patrick: We just witnessed how it happens.


Julie: You just witnessed the process of, "We've given up the ability to prevent any kind of increased density of housing in a fire hazard area." We just gave it up. We've given it up until the next fire.


Al Letson: Eric, you said earlier that homes are getting built in fire-prone wilderness areas all over the country. In Santa Rosa, they're now putting even more houses there right after a major fire. Is the rest of the country doing the same thing as Santa Rosa?


Eric: Yeah, I mean, generally speaking I would say so. We've seen this in areas like Tennessee, Oklahoma, South Carolina. These are all places that have lost homes to fires over the past few years. New houses are being built. They're rebuilding in places that have burned before and it's entirely possible that they're gonna burn again. The other thing we know is that fires are actually gonna increase in severity and frequency throughout the country, not just in the western states. We can expect to see this story again and again and again.


Al Letson: That's Reveal's data reporter, Eric Sagara and Patrick Michaels. That story was produced by Stan Alcorn. Thanks to KQD in San Francisco for the help on today's show. Our show was edited by Brett Myers. Special thanks to Gaye LeBaron. Our production manager is Mwende Hinojosa. Our sound design team is the dynamic duo, Jake Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs and Fernando "My Man Yo" Aruda. They had help from Kat Shupman. Thanks to Dan Bergren and Sleeping Giant Records for additional music in this episode. Acting CEO is Christa Scharfenberg. Amy Powell is our editor in chief. Our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by Camerado, "Lightning." Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva & David Logan Foundation, the John D. & Catherine T. McArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising Simons Foundation, and the Ethics & Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I'm Al Letson, and remember, there is always more to the story.