COVER STORY

Hot Spot

PAUL KURODA/REVEAL
The sprawling Santa Rosa Hilton hotel was one of dozens of structures in Sonoma County consumed by the Tubbs Fire last October. Photo by Paul Kuroda.
The fires that devastated Santa Rosa last fall followed an all-too-familiar pattern, raising questions about zoning and development policies

Lars and Ulla Tandrup signed off on the plans for their dream house on the wild western edge of Northern California’s wine country late in the summer of 2015. The 4,200-square-foot modern home would perch on a ridge over Santa Rosa. With two stories of floor-to-ceiling glass, it was designed to sit open like a dollhouse facing a field of golden grass.

Sonoma County officials took a few months to review the project. Between the drainage review and fire inspection, a warning sounded just over the mountains, a few dozen miles away.

It started small: A backyard hot tub’s faulty electrical wiring overheated and sparked a dry patch of ground. By the time the resulting blaze was contained a month later, it had killed four people, burned more than 76,000 acres and destroyed nearly 2,000 buildings in Lake County. What became known as the Valley Fire was one of the most destructive wildfires in the state’s history.

The reckoning followed a pattern that Californians know well. Scientists tsk-tsked that such fires would worsen with climate change; officials promised better building codes to armor new homes against fire; and the community, backed by benefit concerts and sales of limited-edition wine, vowed to rebuild.

Construction on the Tandrups’ house continued. By last summer, it was complete. Long, sleek lines led from the kitchen through the dining room, out to a wooden deck and an infinity pool. Built to the latest fireproofing standards, the home had vegetation clearance and screens over gutters and vents to block flying embers. Its roof, sheathed in a fireproof synthetic, gleamed as white as a bleached skeleton.

While it felt secluded, it was just 15 minutes from central Santa Rosa. Unruly oaks and neatly planted palms concealed the decades-long sprawl of development from the city into the wilderness. It was a period of growth that began after 1964, when these hills were scorched by one wildfire, the Hanly, and ended when they were consumed last October by another, the Tubbs Fire, which marched right into the Hanly Fire’s footprint.

Among the houses in that footprint: the Tandrups’ dream home.

The wreckage of Lars and Ulla Tandrup’s dream home near Santa Rosa, a month after it was destroyed in the Tubbs Fire. PATRICK MICHELS/REVEAL

The wreckage of Lars and Ulla Tandrup’s dream home near Santa Rosa, a month after it was destroyed in the Tubbs Fire.

A HISTORY OF FIRE

Sonoma County’s hillsides are particularly picturesque and expensive. But their history of fire and development is instructive because it is so typical. And now, some officials and residents have begun to wonder aloud whether some fire-prone areas are too dangerous to inhabit.

In the half century-plus between the Hanly and Tubbs fires, people arrived in Sonoma knowing nothing of the local area’s wildfire past. Planners and builders, who did know the risk, trusted it could be managed with fireproof building materials and clearings around homes. But for some, the Tubbs Fire has shaken that faith.

Reveal, from The Center for Investigative Reporting, took a deep look at Sonoma County to understand how development progressed in a place with a history of wildfires and to explore decision-making about development after fire returns. Five decades’ worth of local planning documents and records from home-by-home inspections conducted by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection after the October fires offer some explanation.

Conventional wildfire planning suggests that newer homes, built to tougher fireproofing standards, would fare better than older ones. But an analysis of Cal Fire data from the Tubbs Fire defies that logic: A building code update added new fireproofing standards for homes in the wildland-urban interface in 2008. Yet, according to the Cal Fire inventory, 56 of the 64 homes built after that year in the Tubbs Fire footprint, including the Tandrups’ house, were destroyed.

Lars and Ulla Tandrups. COURTESY OF DONALD EDGAR

Lars and Ulla Tandrups

A VISION FOR THE HILLS

It was from these wild hills northeast of Santa Rosa that Thomas Lake Harris announced in 1891 that he had discovered the secret to eternal life. Harris, with deep-set eyes and a wild white beard, was among America’s most famous spiritualists, and the utopian commune he called Fountaingrove was his Eden. In the cool climate, his followers grew grapes and crafted wine, while a warm breeze hugging the hillsides nurtured oranges, avocados and persimmons.

Despite his promised immortality, Harris died in 1906. Subsequent owners converted the vineyard to a cattle ranch, but the land maintained a privileged place in local culture. For decades, Santa Rosans would ascend the hill for dinner parties and elaborate costume balls at the grand estate.

One September afternoon in 1964, the hot, dry Diablo winds fanned a brush fire that blanketed the ranch and stopped just shy of the town below. A stunned local fire chief told the San Francisco Chronicle that it was like fighting a flaming yo-yo: “The wind just hangs back, then fire comes in a rush with the wind, and you’re dead.” Before firefighters could contain it, 53,000 acres had burned in what became known as the Hanly Fire, named for the ranch on Mount St. Helena where the blaze started.

But three days later, the front page of The Press Democrat heralded the “Miracle of Santa Rosa.” Despite the destruction, not one person had been killed. Santa Rosans hurried to cover signs of the fire. The state sent planes overhead to seed the scorched hillsides with grass. The parties at Fountaingrove continued.

In 1971, the owner of the ranch, a cattleman named Robert Walter, proposed a 2,000-acre development that would jumpstart a building boom in the hills. The plan included an office park for Hewlett-Packard, plus hundreds of homes for its employees.

John Fouts, whose family guest ranch has suffered three wildfires, including the Hanly and Tubbs, remembers being shocked by plans to put so many homes on hills that had burned so recently. At 17, he’d scrambled to save his family’s buildings from the 1964 fire. He’d seen how thinly the firefighters had been stretched and shuddered at the thought of hundreds of families trying to escape such a fast-moving fire.

“When it went in, all of us who were in firefighting at the time just said, ‘That’s stupid, they can’t build in that spot,’” Fouts said. “And instead, they put million-dollar homes right next to each other.”

WILDFIRE DEVELOPMENT

The Hanly Fire occurred just as California leaders began to see the risk of building communities in the woods. The state began requiring cities and counties to draft strategic plans to ensure that their growth considered natural hazards.

Santa Rosa’s first general plan, drafted shortly after the Hanly Fire, urges caution in development regarding earthquakes and floods, but not wildfires. The current plan does have a section about wildfire risk, but doesn’t suggest limiting development.

At the county level, a 1986 draft plan called for no more than one home per 20 acres in moderate or severe fire-risk areas. But officials softened the language in the final version passed three years later, which remains the law today: “Restrict development in areas that are constrained by the natural limitations of the land,” including fire risk. Officials could interpret just what that meant as they dealt with steady demand for more homes.

Early plans for Fountaingrove noted the land’s history of wildfires, but suggested that a 30-foot perimeter around homes could mitigate the risk. On the steepest hillsides, plans called for building no more than one home per acre to limit the exposure to wildfire — a standard far exceeded by later, denser development.

About 50,000 people lived in Santa Rosa in the 1970s when HP moved in. Today, it’s home to more than 175,000. As the city grew, civic leaders remained committed to a small-town feel, which encouraged outward sprawl. Some hillside developments planted thick trees to maintain a wilderness facade, further increasing the fire risk.

Pete Parkinson, who started with the Sonoma County planning department in 1996 and ran it from 2002 to 2013, said he couldn’t recall a time when county officials rejected a development proposal on the basis of wildfire risk. Rather than stop people from building, city and county officials added requirements such as fire-safe construction, a vegetation-free perimeter and multiple roads to escape a fire.

In the mid-2000s, after Southern California wildfires devoured neighborhoods that had been cleared to the prevailing standard of 30 feet, residents in one Fountaingrove development cleared a 100-foot perimeter around their neighborhood. The effort cost $85,000 a year and satisfied then-Santa Rosa senior fire inspector Scott Moon, who told The Press Democrat, “They’ve taken the necessary steps.”

Moon, now the city’s fire marshal, compares wildfires to house fires caused by a cigarette igniting a mattress. After the development of flame-resistant mattresses and “fire-safe” cigarettes that don’t passively burn, deaths from cigarette-related fires fell. In home-building, as well, Moon says, “we have safer practices, safer construction materials. As we develop those … that becomes our new normal.”

Another solution, of course, is not to smoke in bed.

‘LITERALLY A TORCH’

The first real test for all this planning blew in on the night of Oct. 8, 2017, from a vineyard-lined road in Calistoga called Tubbs Lane. By a later count, the wine country was pummeled by 172 fires that night; the Tubbs Fire was by far the most devastating.

Gusts reaching 70 mph propelled embers more than a mile ahead of the fire. Flames raced the distance of a football field each minute, climbing chutes to ridgetops and pouring down hillsides — a direction that wildfires aren’t supposed to run. “It was literally a torch and everywhere you looked was fire,” said Cal Fire Battalion Chief Jonathan Cox.

Overnight, an area that almost exactly matched the boundary of the 1964 fire was returned to its previous condition: desolate and charred.

For many living in the fire’s path, the smell of smoke was their first cue to run. But the Tandrups, in their new home built to the latest fireproofing standards, slept through the early hours while their neighbors escaped. Their double-pane windows dulled the sound of the rapidly advancing wall of flame. Their north-facing wall, lined with sound-absorbing, fire-resistant insulation, already was engulfed by 1:30 a.m., when they were awakened by a phone call from a concerned neighbor.

With Lars Tandrup clutching their dog under one arm, the couple ran for their lives, stripping shoes and pajamas as they caught fire. The roar of the flames muffled their shouts. Smoke limited their visibility to inches. Embers rained from the blazing trees above and the hot pavement burned their feet. Behind them, the home where they’d lived for just a few months was consumed — fire-safe composite decking, thermoplastic heat-reflective roof and all.

Crossing their driveway, the Tandrups saw their only route down the hillside was blocked by a wall of flame. With nowhere else to turn, they ran into it.

The couple became separated. Lars doubled back to search for Ulla, but couldn’t find her. He struggled three-quarters of a mile down the road until a passing driver stopped and brought him to an emergency room. As he was being carried in, he learned that Ulla, rescued by a Cal Fire team, was already there.

The Tandrups, both in their late 40s, have since filed a lawsuit against Pacific Gas and Electric Co., one of dozens of suits claiming the power giant contributed to the fire by not maintaining its utility poles — another result, though avoidable, of building in the woods. Lars and Ulla Tandrup were treated for burns on their feet and legs, according to their attorney, Don Edgar; for months after the fire, Ulla remained hospitalized, fighting infections from her injuries.

The Tandrups’ home was one of many fire-safe residences lost in the fire. According to a Cal Fire inspection of each damaged site, about 60 percent had the recommended double-pane windows and screens on their attic vents; half had fire-resistant siding. It didn’t matter.

As homes caught fire, they became more fuel for the blaze. Dave Sapsis, a Cal Fire scientist, says dense pockets of burning homes in the hills, such as those in Fountaingrove, played a significant role in the fire’s spread. “The fine fuels and the vegetation are going to burn up in five or 10 minutes,” he says. “Homes can sit there and spit out large embers for oftentimes more than an hour.”

IS IT SAFE TO DEVELOP?

Pete Parkinson, the former county official who spent his career planning communities to weather disaster, is retired now. But as president of the American Planning Association’s California chapter, he has a role in the ongoing conversation about fire-safe building. After what he’s endured, does he believe there are places that shouldn’t be developed because of the fire danger?

“I might’ve answered that question a little differently a couple of months ago,” he says. “But right now, I would say yes. … It’s not a decision to be made lightly by a planner or by a local elected official, but I think it’s a very legitimate question.”

Parkinson lost his home in unincorporated Sonoma County to another fire, the Nuns, the same night as the Tubbs Fire. Returning to the scene after two months, Parkinson looked out at the empty space where his deck, built from hard, fire-resistant Brazilian wood, once stood; the heap of rusted appliances in what had been his kitchen; and the spot where his living room used to be. Somewhere in the wreckage, he was sure, were the remains of his dog, lost in the fire.

Down the street, he pointed out a home where one of his neighbors didn’t make it out. Unlike the “miracle” fire of 1964, the October 2017 fires killed 44 people across Northern California. “It is a scale and magnitude that nobody even imagined,” he said. “I don’t know that you can plan for something like this.”

Still, he plans to build a new home right here, he said. He’s counting on the odds falling in his favor next time.

San Rafael Police Officer Mark Wilkinson wipes smoke from his eyes as the Santa Rosa Hilton hotel burns behind him on the evening of last Oct. 9. PAUL KURODA/REVEAL

San Rafael Police Officer Mark Wilkinson wipes smoke from his eyes as the Santa Rosa Hilton hotel burns behind him on the evening of last Oct. 9.

THE AFTERMATH

Disaster recovery experts say the weeks immediately following a fire, flood or earthquake offer the best window for reform. While the images are fresh, people accept extreme changes to avoid repeating the tragedy. But those also are the weeks when people are most desperate to rebuild.

The tension between these impulses was evident at the Santa Rosa City Council’s first meeting after the fire. In late October, the bowl-shaped council chambers filled with a mix of people anxious to rebuild their homes and others who couldn’t bear to return.

“Putting our community in a fire-prone area has jeopardized all of us and frightened us horribly,” said retired teacher Marsha Taylor. “We need to look at the urban planning mistakes that we have made in the past and rethink them now and not repeat those errors over and over again.”

“I do believe that there are places where people shouldn’t build houses, and arguably Rincon Ridge was one of those places,” Mayor Chris Coursey said, referring to the Fountaingrove hillside. But Coursey wasn’t willing to stop landowners from rebuilding a home they’d just lost. And the city could hardly afford to block development by buying burned properties.

The council soon faced a more difficult decision about new development in the fire footprint. This came with another kind of urgency: The city and county each stand to lose millions a year in property and other local taxes; both are desperate for new development.

In December, the council took up a rezoning proposal to build hundreds of townhouses near Fountaingrove, on a field that burned in the Tubbs Fire. The project is called Round Barn Village, after an iconic red horse barn built by Thomas Lake Harris’ followers in 1899. It had been one of the last surviving relics of the commune until the Tubbs Fire consumed it.

Leading the opposition to the development was Council Member Julie Combs, who has a background in mechanical engineering and who spent the night of the fire dousing embers on her roof with a garden hose. “I don’t have the faith in engineering versus nature that many folks have,” she said outside the meeting. “This is sort of the ‘Jurassic Park’ rule, right? Nature finds a way.”

Outside Sonoma County, other officials are beginning to agree.

In March, a judge in Placer County halted a development that would have added 760 homes in an area with high fire risk, saying county officials didn’t conduct a thorough analysis of the land’s susceptibility to wildfire.

PG&E, facing a legal onslaught from homeowners and cities in the fire’s path, defended itself in April by filing claims against Santa Rosa, Sonoma County and other local agencies, arguing that their poor urban planning decisions contributed to the fire.

California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones has said cities and counties must find ways to put fewer homes in places that are primed to burn. In a report released in January, his office noted that from 2010 to 2016, complaints more than tripled from people in high-wildfire-risk counties about insurance companies that raised their rates or refused to insure their homes.

Included in the report is a letter sent to a Cal Fire task force member two weeks before the Tubbs Fire, in which insurance industry groups explained their reasoning: “Fires now burn hotter, and as a result, mitigation — even defensible space — will not always save a community or home.”

THE CASE TO BUILD

On the night in February that the Santa Rosa City Council convened for its final vote on Round Barn Village, the developer’s CEO, Phil Kerr, made his case.

While he understood the fire risk, Kerr was confident the development would exceed the latest safe building standards. While building into the woods is a risky proposition, he said, the Fountaingrove site is hardly wild anymore — it’s surrounded by 40 years of development. The only public comments came from three local men who favored the project.

The project was approved, and the chamber emptied quickly. Combs was among the last to leave. Outside, the air was cool and still. How quickly memories can fade, she said. She saw the moment as a watershed, the beginning of the rush to build new housing in the fire’s wake. Maybe the people who approved Fountaingrove could be forgiven for not knowing the risk decades ago, she said. But that’s not the case anymore.

“We’re trying to say we don’t want to have too-high density in a higher fire hazard area. And then we gave it permission,” she said. “We’ve given up the ability to prevent high-density housing in a fire hazard area. We just gave it up, and we’ve given it up until the next fire.”

Reveal Producer Stan Alcorn contributed to this report. Patrick Michels can be reached at pmichels@revealnews.org, and Eric Sagara can be reached at esagara@revealnews.org. This story was produced by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Learn more at revealnews.org and subscribe to the Reveal podcast at revealnews.org/podcast.

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