Skip to main content

Wildfire victims rebuild in Sonoma with homes hardened and fingers crossed

The image shows a before-and-after comparison. On the left, there is a burned-out and damaged yard with a pool. On the right, there is a pristine, well-maintained modern house with a pool.
A composite image of Lynne Wallace’s home in Santa Rosa that was rebuilt using fire-safe techniques after being completely destroyed in 2017’s Tubbs Fire. | Source: Courtesy of Lynne Wallace

Wildfire victims rebuild in Sonoma with homes hardened and fingers crossed

After Lynne Wallace watched her house in Santa Rosa’s Fountaingrove neighborhood burn to embers in the October 2017 Tubbs Fire, the question on her mind wasn’t whether to rebuild but how quickly she could do it.

The scale of the destruction for what at the time was the most destructive wildfire in California history was just beginning to become clear. All told, the blaze destroyed more than 5,600 structures and led to 22 deaths. 

One of the first calls she made with her home still smoldering was to local contractor Shook & Waller Construction. Understanding the wide-scale reconstruction effort that would take place in the coming months and years, Wallace, a longtime insurance broker, struck a deal. 

She would act as an “insurance concierge” for the company’s clients if they put her at the front of the line to rebuild her home. It worked. 

The image shows a pool surrounded by burned trees and vegetation, with charred lounge chairs nearby and what appears to be a building destroyed by fire in the background.A luxurious two-story house with a tiled roof features a spacious backyard with a clear blue swimming pool, patio furniture, and well-maintained landscaping at dusk.
Drag to compare
Press left and right to compare
Lynne Wallace's home in the Fountaingrove neighborhood of Santa Rosa was completely destroyed in 2017's Tubbs Fire, which decimated the community. But she pressed on with a speedy fire-resistant rebuild that was completed in August 2020. | Courtesy Lynne Wallace

“We were the first permit pulled out of Santa Rosa in Fountaingrove,” Wallace said. 

As new blazes spark across Northern California, marking the beginning of a fire season after two years of relative reprieve, those who have rebuilt after ruin are relying on new fire-hardening techniques and technologies, along with some crossed fingers to keep their properties safe. 

The reconstruction process for her home was finished in August 2020 and Wallace and her husband moved back in. The timing turned out to be less than fortuitous. During the first night in their new home wildfires again burned in the distance. 

“We were getting ready for bed and as we looked outside the window you could see the flames,” Wallace said. “I realized at that point I had a little PTSD, so we packed and went back to stay in Sebastopol with family.”

A house is engulfed in flames, severely damaged, with intense fire and smoke. In the foreground, a firefighter in yellow gear walks by, surrounded by yellow hoses.
A firefighter walks near a flaming house in Santa Rosa during the Tubbs fire on Oct. 9, 2017. The wildfire killed 22 people and destroyed 5,643 structures, inflicting the greatest losses in Santa Rosa. | Source: Jeff Chiu/AP Photo

Living with wildfires is simply a way of life in Sonoma County, but one thing that Wallace takes solace in is how firefighters have become themselves hardened in the ways of protecting property and people.

“Things are different now. In 2017, the strategy was get everyone out and let the whole thing burn,” Wallace said. “The joke now is that when a backyard barbecue fire is lit, the planes are in the air within 10 minutes.”

The interior of her home is now fully sprinklered. Formerly open eaves are closed and fireproofed, the house itself has a stucco exterior and a tile roof that is fire-hardened. All in all, she feels as confident as she can be that she’s protected. 

A person wearing a face mask stands next to a large ceramic pot in front of charred, collapsed remains of a building with only a few upright columns left standing.A Mediterranean-style house with a tiled roof is seen at dusk. The entrance has lit pathways and an old olive tree surrounded by low shrubs and rocks.
Drag to compare
Press left and right to compare
Among the major fire-hardening techniques employed by rebuilt properties in Sonoma County are fire-resistant landscaping that can proactively protect homes. | Courtesy Lynne Wallace

“The biggest thing I learned is that I now know that things do happen. We need to recognize that reality, but why live here if you’re going to be in fear all the time?” Wallace said. “I trust the system, but I don’t hold onto things as tightly as I used to.”

A diaper-inspired defense 

As a child, John Bartlett grew up responding to blazes with his fire captain father in Florida. 

Decades later, while putting out a trash fire as a firefighter himself, he pulled a wet, stinky, but unburned diaper from the remains. After researching the chemistry within the diaper, Bartlett created a viscous fire gel he calls Barricade that can coat a home and holds water on the surface longer as a form of fire protection.   

A person in a blue shirt sprays a light green exterior wall with a container labeled "Barricade II Fire Blocking Gel," using a red nozzle attachment.
John Bartlett created a viscous fire gel he calls Barricade that property owners can use to coat their home and which holds water in a sponge-like manner as a method of fire defense. | Source: Courtesy Barricade

Recently, his company has launched a new pressure washer system that makes evenly coating homes with the product easier. 

Bartlett said he’s seen demand for his product grow in California with the increasing wildfire risk. His main brick-and-mortar outlet in the state is Primo Supply, a firefighting equipment retailer located in El Dorado County.

A sales representative at Primo Supply said Barricade is one of the store’s top sellers, along with a foam-based flame retardant known as Flame-Foam and fire pumps that increase the discharge pressure of water sources. 

Another product that has become a near-ubiquitous fire protection technique is Vulcan-brand vents that allow for adequate airflow into a home during normal conditions, but expand and block off embers when exposed to extreme temperatures.

Mario Tamo, the managing partner at Shook and Waller Construction in Santa Rosa, said his company has completed the rebuild of around 100 homes that were destroyed by wildfire in the last few years. 

While there are more drastic measures that some homeowners are undertaking, including novel homebuilding materials like steel framing or insulated concrete that are more fire-resistant, those are far and few in between, Tamo said. 

A utility worker, wearing a red helmet and yellow shirt, kneels beside a blue house numbered 2290, working on an electrical box with duct tape.
Robin Whiteplume, of Wildfire Defense Systems, Inc., tapes up a vent on in South Lake Tahoe. Embers can easily enter homes through vents and set structures ablaze from the inside. | Source: Jane Tyska/East Bay Times/Getty Images

“Ninety percent of all fire hardening we’re seeing is in landscaping and the exterior of the home, including stucco siding, shorter eaves and metal roofing,” Tamo said. 

In contrast to the barriers to building a home in San Francisco, Tamo said permitting and entitlement for reconstruction has been a bright spot in the process. Sonoma County created a specific Resiliency Permit Center that aims to provide comments on permit applications for home reconstructions in less than a week. 

According to data from the Sonoma County Planning Department, 2,548 parcels in the county had structures destroyed by wildfire since 2017 with 1,707 (67%)  now seeing rebuild activity. 

“Almost everybody is in good spirits and wants to rebuild and deem it as a triumph really,” Tamo said.

More frequently, the struggle is dealing with insurance claims. On that front, Tamo has recommended clients retain attorneys who can help them substantiate insurance claims and timelines and put pressure on carriers to pay out promptly. 

An uncertain future

Paul Nakada purchased a 23-acre cattle farm on Chalk Hill Road in Healdsburg in 2002 as a scenic escape for him and his extended family. He and his family split their time between San Francisco and the rural property, which includes a fruit orchard, a vegetable patch and a flower garden.  

In retrospect, Nakada said the ranch home, which was built in the 1970s “was more or less waiting to be burned down.” But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a shock when his neighbor called to tell him the news that the property was destroyed in 2019’s Kincade Fire. 

“What you don’t realize when they say your house burned down is that it’s like a campfire,” Nakada said. “The fire doesn’t stop until there’s literally nothing left.”

A firefighter carries a hose in front of a large barn engulfed in intense flames, with a smoke-filled, orange sky above.
A firefighter fights the Kincade Fire, which burned more than 77,000 acres in Sonoma County and led to widespread evacuations. | Source: Courtesy Paul Nakada

When embarking on the rebuild process, his “knee-jerk reaction” was to go as fire-safe as possible. In essence, building an unburnable fortress that would withstand the worst that nature could throw at him. He went on a tour of sorts, speaking to architects and visiting poured concrete homes across the region.  

But those ideas ran headlong into reality. There was the cost of poured concrete construction—at least double what traditional construction would be—the negative environmental impacts and, unexpectedly, a musty smell nearly impossible to remove. 

Instead, Nakada turned to more traditional fire-safety techniques including a stucco exterior, a steel roof and fire-scale landscaping, completing the 3,500-square-foot rebuild in November of 2022. The property’s landscaping looks a lot more like Phoenix now, Nakada said, meaning a lot of gravel, a lot more succulents and no more Redwood bark chips.

The image depicts the charred remains of a house after a fire, with rubble scattered on the ground and a brick chimney still standing amidst the destruction. A tree and hilly landscape provide the backdrop.
The remains of Paul Nakada's ranch home in Healdsburg that was destroyed by the Kincade Fire. The few items left standing were a chimney and a charred laundry machine and dryer. | Source: Courtesy Paul Nakada

“If you want fire resistance without rebuilding you have to take some drastic and expensive measures,” Nakada said. “It’s easy to redo your landscaping when it’s all gone, but the thought of someone ripping our landscaping out and installing stuff that looks really unfamiliar is almost unthinkable.”

Nakada wryly noted that in the wake of his home’s reconstruction, his insurance carrier dropped his policy, leaving him to rely on the already-stretched California Fair plan. The start of this year’s fire season has again hit close to home with friends having to evacuate temporarily due to the Point Fire, which has burned over 1,200 acres in Sonoma County.

So would he rebuild afresh if the unthinkable happened again?

“I don’t know,” Nakada said after a pregnant pause. “It’s definitely not a firm yes.”