Since 2017, Sonoma County has rebuilt 1,176 homes, with 1,869 more under construction and permits pending or issued for 478. The North Bay Fire Relief Fund, a partnership of Redwood Credit Union, The Press Democrat and state Sen. Mike McGuire, raised $32 million to assist fire victims.
What’s more, the disasters deepened community bonds. The Sonoma Strong movement saw residents unite in Hidden Valley, Coffey Park, Larkfield Estates and other neighborhoods.
2. Housing crunch
Sonoma County’s housing shortage escalated through the decade, exacerbated by wildfire losses as the median price for a single-family home rebounded mightily from the recession, going from $305,000 in 2009 to a record above $700,000 in 2018.
The price dipped to $660,000 in October, but homeownership remains beyond the reach of the vast majority of county households, and 39 percent of households face a “housing burden,” defined as spending 30 percent or more of their monthly income on mortgage payments. More than half of renters face the same challenge.
Robert Eyler, a Sonoma State University economist, summed up the county’s lingering dilemma bluntly: “More demand than supply. It’s that simple.”
From 2009 to 2016, builders added just 6,300 housing units in the county, a period in which the local economy added 31,000 jobs. It was just a fraction of the nearly 18,000 homes built in the previous eight years, and the lack of inventory has created a seller’s market, relentlessly pushing up prices.
The 2017 wildfires destroyed about 5% of Santa Rosa’s total housing stock.
County officials last year calculated the gap between the county housing supply before the fires — about 208,000 homes, apartments and other units — and what is needed to keep the economy growing and to comfortably house a wide range of workers and families.
It came to about 30,000 units, the equivalent to what exists in Rohnert Park, Windsor and Sebastopol, prompting supervisors to set a five-year goal of building 6,000 houses and apartments a year, completing an average of 16 homes a day.
Builders are likely to fall “woefully short” of the goal for reasons out of their control, including insufficient supplies of labor and materials as well as projects ready to go that have cleared all approvals.
Meanwhile, employers in both the public and private sectors have reported difficulty hiring workers from out of the area because of the high cost of housing.
3. Climate change
A drought that lasted years, flooding on the Russian River and wildfires rampaging throughout the North Coast made the global reckoning with climate change all the more local and personal.
Sonoma County endured the state’s most destructive fire at the time in 2017 and Mendocino and Lake counties were home to the largest wildfire a year later, punctuating a scary trend that leading authorities say is driven by climate change.
“Climate change is a core driver of heightened wildfire risk,” said a report by Gov. Gavin Newsom’s strike force in April. Warming temperatures, faster-shrinking snowpacks and longer droughts are all factors.
The result, according to Cal Fire, the state’s firefighting agency, are fire seasons that start earlier and end later each year.
California experienced nearly 24,000 wildfires that scorched about 3.8 million acres — an area larger than Sonoma and Mendocino counties combined — in the past three years.