In the early hours of Oct. 9, 2017, Hans Mattes and his partner, Carole LaRue, were awoken by branches falling on their home in Santa Rosa’s Fountaingrove neighborhood. As flames engulfed the landscape, they jumped into their car and drove through a wall of smoke so thick that Mattes could hardly keep the car on the road.
They kept driving to Petaluma, where they have friends who would shelter them in the initial aftermath of the worst natural disaster to befall Sonoma County. A few days later, knowing that their home of 22 years and everything in it was lost forever, the couple purchased a house on Petaluma’s west side.
“We’re thinking of this as a new chapter in our lives,” said Mattes, 75, a retired engineer, who worked at Bell Labs and Hewlett Packard. “We were not injured. We had insurance. Now we get to start over. We’re really enjoying life in Petaluma. It is a delightful place to be.”
Mattes and LaRue, 78, are two of the thousands of lives forever altered by the firestorms that swept through the county one year ago. While Petaluma was spared the damage inflicted on Santa Rosa and Sonoma Valley, the fire’s impact was certainly felt in the city.
From newly resettled evacuees squeezing the housing market to an influx of homeless people, Petaluma has absorbed new residents in the wake of the fires that destroyed 5,300 homes countywide. The fire was a learning opportunity for Petaluma first responders and city officials, who have been debriefing and refining procedures in preparation for the next big disaster.
The fire tested Petaluma’s trademark spirit of volunteerism and generosity as residents stepped up to help neighbors. And the fire has revealed lingering trauma, as the wounds are still fresh for many around the one year anniversary, and even the smell of smoke can trigger worry.
Housing challenges remain
Any vacancies that Petaluma had were quickly filled after the fires, said Sue Castellucci, the director of the city’s housing division.
A major apartment complex vacancy survey in April found that only 2.1 percent of the Petaluma’s 3,136 total apartments were available, which was partially inflated due to the influx of new units at Addison Ranch, Castellucci said.
Otherwise, the vacancy rate has remained relatively consistent, around 1 percent.
“Over the year, I’d say Petaluma has made some progress in getting units on the ground in both for-sale and rentals,” Castellucci said. “In the future, I think there’s projects that have been approved and waiting for financing … so there’s other apartment projects coming up.”
Altura Apartments, Brody Ranch and Marina Apartments will bring a combined 380 units to Petaluma, with the former two providing a total of 48 affordable housing units.
At the moment, housing projects providing more than 2,000 combined units are either in the planning process, approved or under construction. Until those come to fruition, though, thousands of residents across the county continue to be impacted by the chronic shortage of housing.
Sarah Quinto, chief development officer at Petaluma’s Committee on the Shelterless, said approximately 21,000 people remain precariously housed across Sonoma County, stuck in temporary housing situations. About half of that amount is due to the fires.
“There are a lot of people that are saying it’s just harder,” Quinto said. “(They say) ‘I can’t afford this community; I can’t find anything in this community.’ That challenge has gotten to be greater.”