How, what, where to rebuild

Dave Alden


In recent weeks, I’ve taken part in many conversations about rebuilding after the North Bay wildfires. I’ve learned much and my thinking has evolved greatly.

Learning and rethinking will continue. With people eager to resume their lives, I can only summarize my thoughts are they are today, incomplete as they may be, with the hope that they help inform our collective judgment.

In many cultures, ours included, there is a strong sentiment of “the home as a castle,” a belief that homeownership should come with autonomy. I don’t want to be told how to decorate or maintain my home.

However, the wildfires provided the counterargument that houses serve a community need. As we observe the great bustle, public and private, to find housing for those displaced by the fires, for those who will rebuild the homes lost to fire, and for those displaced by a rental market churning because of the fires, it’s obvious that the fires did a great harm to our community.

The fires were private tragedies for many. They were also a massive community disruption. With more fires to come, both perspectives must be incorporated into a rebuild strategy.

With that point in mind, let’s consider the aspects of our strategy.

Where to build

History shows that fire will again roar down the canyon from Calistoga into northern Santa Rosa. With four fires in a little more than a century, the question isn’t if, but when. Climate change will only shorten the interval.

While acknowledging that property rights allow rebuilding a lost home, if a homeowner is willing to consider options away from future fires, we should help facilitate that consideration.

This particularly applies to the homes early in the route of the fire. With fire science suggesting that the blocky shape of houses propagates fires more quickly than trees, reducing the number of upwind homes can save downwind homes.

Instead of rebuilding in place, some suggest that downtown housing should be expedited as an alternative. As a proponent of walkable urbanism, I second that motion, but with a caveat.

Creating downtown housing is often time-consuming because of extended city/developer negotiations to hammer out the right configurations. If expedited development means shortening the process with the resulting projects being ill-configured, then I’d pass. We have too few chances to get walkability right to act precipitously. But if we can correctly hone downtown projects on a timely basis, I’m fully onboard.

How to build

In recent weeks, I’ve chatted with architects about how to build homes that would be less likely to burn. Good options are available.

Non-combustible roofs, concrete-fiber siding, landscaping with defensible zones, and finer vent screens preventing embers from reaching attics are well-established strategies. And one architect offered a quick tutorial on how a deck over a rising slope can act as a fuse.

We know how to build homes that are more fire-resistant. We must use that knowledge.

What to build

We can’t do much to lessen climate change by how Santa Rosa is rebuilt. There aren’t enough homes to make much of a dent. But one difference we can make is if our rebuild strategy becomes a template for elsewhere. If we want the North Bay to set an example, which we should, we must consider climate action in our rebuild decisions.

Using a building code that minimizes the use of fossil fuels is essential. Accomplishing this may require adoption of the new code now in preparation, the 2019 or Zero Net Energy Code. Pushing for quick adoption for this code may feel like piling onto the homeowners who’ve already suffered traumatic losses. However, at least one architect argues that the current code has deficiencies and that the new code would simplify compliance for rebuilding.

Looking at the neighborhood scale, we can also look at changing land-use configurations, subject to concurrence of affected homeowners.

Encouraging homes with accessory dwelling units are an obvious start, providing additional housing and increasing home values.

But we can also consider strategies such as acquiring easements for bike/pedestrian paths and implementing Safe Routes to Schools to allow more non-auto trips, facilitating denser development through duplexes or Hollywood bungalows, encouraging new transit stops if the density will support them, and, again assuming that sufficient density can be achieved, creating sites for walkable destinations such as coffee shops or delis.

This is a broad range of ideas. But the challenges and opportunities before us demand that we consider all and more. Let’s pick wisely.

(Dave Alden is a registered civil engineer. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. His email address is