Finding insight in fire disaster

Dave Alden


Returning from a recent family gathering, I followed a route through Middletown, Calistoga and Santa Rosa on my way home. Before coming to grips with fire rebuild strategies, I wanted to gaze upon the evidence of the growing incidence of wildfires.

I succeeded. I viewed the regrowth that has begun in Lake County in the year since those conflagrations and then followed the path taken by the Tubbs fire on its way to devastating north Santa Rosa.

My goal wasn’t to be a wildfire voyeur. When I saw people who had lost all and were digging through ashes, I averted my eyes. When I drove near the burned remains of a friend’s former home, I had no temptation to turn toward the lot. I didn’t take a single photo. I didn’t wish to intrude on private grief. Instead, I wanted to sense communal loss. And to absorb a visceral feeling of wildfires.

Both goals were accomplished. Silent sentinels of chimneys standing guard over expanses of ash and empty foundations bespoke of shared loss. And passing a tidy home, intact and with flower boxes still green, only to find ribbons of burned power line insulation framing a still life of a burned home and car around the next bend told of the capricious destruction of wildfires.

Having viewed the devastation, my commitment remains strong to help define the best template for the post-fire rebuild. In part, I’m motivated by a concern for the people of Santa Rosa, the current residents eager to resume their lives and the future residents who will wish to live without the constant fear of another fire roaring in from the northeast.

But also I’m also motivated by the expectation that many communities, perhaps including Petaluma, will someday soon need the same template when climate change whips a wildfire into their midst.

But a motivation to solve for the optimal template is very different from having that solution.

The primary question for those grappling with a rebuild strategy is finding the balance between the persistence and the deficiencies of the status quo.

On one side of the scale are the institutional factors, the desire of homeowners to resume their lives, the arguments of mortgage lenders to restore their collateral, the interest of insurance companies to define and to satisfy their obligations, and much more, that argue for rebuilding the lost homes much as they were.

On the other side of the scale are the factors such as the concerns that many of the lost homes shouldn’t have been built in the first place because of wildfire susceptibility, the design details that made homes more susceptible to fire, the greater energy use of older building codes and auto-centric land-use patterns that drove the use of fossil fuels, which in turn drove climate change.

Every week in Sonoma County, there are literally hundreds of meetings, and thousands of emails, grasping for the right balance between the two sides.

As a participant in many of the meetings and emails, my thoughts have been constantly churning. What I knew a week ago has been upset by new information. What I know today will likely be overturned by new insights or new perspectives tomorrow.

But a time must come when information gathering ends and nail driving begins. A drive through the bleakness left by a wildfire demands a coherent response.

Changing subjects, I have news from Know Before You Grow, a Petaluma organization with which I’m involved and which organizes forums on local land-use matters. The next forum has been scheduled.

The event will be Wednesday, Nov. 15, at 7 p.m., in the Petaluma Community Center on North McDowell Boulevard.

The subject will be the proposed North River Apartments near Petaluma Boulevard North and Oak Street. The forum will measure the proposed project against the community values that have evolved from earlier KBYG forums. Those values are housing for all, mobility options, climate action and municipal financial sustainability.

All are welcome to attend. Please go to the Facebook page for Know Before You Grow to tell us of your plan to join us on the 15th.

(Dave Alden is a registered civil engineer. He has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. His email address is