Sustainable Rebuilding After The Fire

The fire that took Ellie Rosebush’s home was swift and merciless. “We had been getting red flag warnings for days, so my husband and I had our bags packed just in case,” says Rosebush, association executive for the Oroville Association of REALTORS®. When she left for work that morning (a 30-minute drive), the fire was miles away.

“By the time I got to work, people were telling me that Paradise [where Rosebush lives] was on fire. In a matter of 30 minutes, the fire went from the canyon to evacuating my city. My husband was at home and grabbed as much as he could,” she says.

As a retired firefighter, Rosebush’s husband tried to save the home. “After hours without a word that he was safe, I finally heard from him. He wasn’t able to save our home, but he did save himself. By now, it was 5 p.m., and I didn’t have a house to go home to,” she explains.

The town of Paradise lost an estimated 95 percent of its buildings. “We went from a town of 27,000 people to 3,000,” says Charles Brooks, executive director of the Rebuild Paradise Foundation, a foundation to support the long-term rebuild efforts of Butte County’s disaster affected residents, businesses and workforce. All told, the Camp Fire, as it’s known, destroyed about 18,000 structures, including about 14,000 homes, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. The California Department of Insurance says that wildfire insurance losses topped $12 billion for both the Camp Fire and the Woolsey Fire.

Paradise’s existing home stock prices hit a peak in March regarding prices. They are above where they were last November by about 7.5 to 10 percent, but lot prices are heading south because there is such a large supply and not much demand. Prices will slowly creep back up for lots as people start building.
— Michael Zuccolillo, broker/owner of Simplistic Realty and a Paradise Town Council member

The town of Oroville is right next to Paradise and wasn’t as severely impacted. Naturally, said Rosebush, “the people of Paradise came to Oroville for rentals. So, our population increased. That meant that the town of Oroville needed to act immediately, putting a moratorium on raising rents. As the REALTORS®, we were on top of that, communicating it to our members.” Not only that but for the few properties left standing in Paradise, and surrounding towns, real estate prices skyrocketed.

Bringing Residents Back

Paradise originally grew as an affordable place to live. “We had a lot of smaller homes; homes you would buy if you were just starting,” says Michael Zuccolillo, broker/owner of Simplistic Realty and a Paradise Town Council member.

But, rebuilding to California code costs a lot of money. “Add disaster economics, and that many were underinsured, and the price goes through the roof,” says Brooks. “We want to have a dramatic impact on lowering the costs incrementally.”

To do that, the Rebuild Paradise Foundation discussed what Paradise might be five or ten years down the road. “We wanted to come up with creative ways to attract, incentivize and retain business owners and residents in the disaster-affected counties,” says Brooks.

Rebuild Paradise is currently offering free floor plans to save costs on architect services. They’re also partnering with other organizations to provide low or no-cost solutions for things like tree removal, water services, and more.

A new program they’re offering soon is to provide grants to offset surveying costs. “Our town is requiring that all lots be surveyed before sale or construction, which costs anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000. But, 50 percent of the town was never recorded, so that a record of survey could be much more expensive. These costs add up for residents who want to rebuild, so we’re working to defray some of these expenses.”

He says, “We lost 93 percent of our housing, but commercial fared much better. However, we don’t have any residents. So, our focus is getting rooftops so we can support the business community,” says Brooks.

More than just rebuilding homes, Paradise is looking forward to a vision for the entire community.

Leaders in the city of Malibu feel the same way. At the same time as the Camp Fire, the Woolsey Fire took out 1,600 structures and 488 homes in Malibu, says Reva Feldman, city manager for the city of Malibu. Malibu leaders are working with the state of California and the Office of Emergency Services on debris removal.

“We’ve passed whatever ordinances we can to ease any restrictions. Malibu is a coastal city, and we are under the jurisdiction of the California Coastal Commission, so building here is a pretty rigorous thing to do. Before the fire, rebuilding would take about 18 months to get permitted,” says Feldman. “Now, a building can get permitted in about 30 days.”

Planning 1.0

More than just rebuilding homes, Paradise, specifically, is looking forward to a vision for the entire community. Rosebush applied for a $2,000 smart growth grant from the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® and received it. The Association’s goal was to bring speakers to their annual Oroville 2020 event to talk about smart growth in the towns impacted by the fire.

“Every year, we hold an event that focuses on smart growth, transportation, education, how to build a community, topics like that. For our Oroville 2020 event, we wanted to focus on how to deal with planning when rebuilding our community. We brought in Kate Meis, executive director of the Local Government Commission,” says Rosebush. Meis talked about what other communities had done to rebuild.

One example of that is what the city of Santa Rosa has done around housing motivated by the wildfire and the great destruction that they face, according to Meis.

“They, like many communities, are already in a situation where they had a housing gap before the disaster. Then, the fires exacerbated that greatly. What they’ve been able to do post-disaster is open up a permitting counter. They brought in consultants to focus on streamlining the housing process. I think it’s a really important example because wildfire disaster or not, communities all over the nation are in a housing crisis,” she says. “Ultimately, because they were able to get more permits in, it ended up being revenue positive. It’s been a revenue generator for the city, which they can put back into recovery efforts, and it’s a win, win, win.”

Meis also notes that Santa Rosa is focusing on infill as well. “They’re trying to get as many people as possible in the downtown area.” And, she says, they’ve seen a “30-percent increase in accessory dwelling units because policies have been changed.”

Paradise is closely watching Santa Rosa’s successes and incorporating some of the ideas into their vision. The town of Paradise received a grant from the Butte Strong Fund as a gift for Urban Design Associate’s planning services to aid in the recovery and rebuilding process. They’re looking at improving evacuation routes, warning systems, and improving fire prevention measures through defensible space and fire-safe landscaping. One huge improvement, says Brooks, is to invest in a sewer system in the town.

A Long-Term Recovery Plan encompasses everything from how to make the community safer to how to make it greener and more sustainable.

“Our economic success hinges on getting a centralized sewer system. The growth of our business district is hampered by the fact that we don’t have one, and now is the prime time to take on this project,” says Brooks.

Improving Communications

As a part of their priorities, the town of Paradise came up with a Long-Term Recovery Plan (LTRP) that encompasses everything from how to make the community safer to how to make it greener and more sustainable. According to the LTRP, “Understanding which sustainability principles will be most effective in a rural setting is critical to developing a sustainable and green agenda for the future.” Some of the projects they are hoping to implement are using 2019 building energy efficiency standards with green building requirements for the new building, sustainable stormwater and drainage, sustainable development, and sustainable building programs.

The legislature is responding to the urgent needs of those areas that suffered from catastrophes, such as wildfires.

Another part of the LTRP is resident safety, which includes improvements to its emergency notification system and better evacuation routes. “Our phones went down, so what do you do when cell towers go down? Traffic got pinched off; emergency messages didn’t go out. These are all issues we need to improve upon,” says Zuccolillo. “There’s been a big focus on meaningful preparation.”

The same is true for Malibu. “One of the things we’re concerned about is redundancy for power and cell communications, which were an issue because we lost power throughout this area during the fire. Communicating with our residents was extremely challenging, so we’re looking at building sirens throughout — old-fashioned air raid sirens,” says Feldman. “We’ve established community information points of distribution where we would post information in predesignated areas where people could come and get information if the power is out. And, we’re doing evacuation drills. We’re constantly planning.”

Also, she says, “[While] Malibu certainly has some wealthy residents, not all of our residents are wealthy. The areas that were impacted by the Woolsey Fire had long-time residents, first-time homeowners who owned the house for 50 years. And so, while they might be land-rich, they’re not necessarily house-rich. A lot of people were underinsured.”

Legislative Moves

On a state level, the legislature is responding to the urgent needs of those areas that suffered from catastrophes, such as wildfires. “There are a few bills related to wildfire specifically to reduce the risk,” says Julia Kim, senior project manager for the climate change program for the city of Malibu. “SB-182 Jackson’s bill requires cities and counties that contain high fire risk areas to adopt a high fire risk overlay zone and then amend its zoning ordinances.”

Kim also mentioned SB-295 McGuire’s bill, which incentivizes homeowners to adopt various measures to increase the resilience of their home, such as vegetative management. Says Kim, “It would provide credits against any tax or tax-related to personal income tax,” she says.

The Local Government Commission has developed programs to help prepare communities to be more resilient in the face of anticipate extreme-weather impacts.

According to Rosebush, “We’ve been working with Assemblyman Gallagher’s office, on Assembly Bill 430.” The bill seeks to establish a streamlined approval process for residential and mixed-use developments within Biggs, Corning, Gridley, Live Oak, Oroville, Orland, Willows and Yuba City — exempting the projects from a lengthy review process under the California Environmental Quality Act.

Also, the Local Government Commission has developed programs to help prepare communities to be more resilient in the face of anticipated extreme-weather impacts. One of those programs is called the Alliance of Regional Collaboratives for Climate Adaptation. “It includes many regions across California. We help them build more resilient communities to handle climate impacts like extreme heat, rising sea levels, and wildfire. The group also learns from the best practices of others,” says Meis.

Another program called Civic Spark is an AmeriCorps program that partners with Corporations For National Community Service at the federal level, and California Volunteers and the governor’s office of planning and research at the state level. “We placed 90 fellows in communities all across California for just under a year to work on projects under the broad umbrella of climate resiliency.”

One such problem they’re working on is urban sprawl. “Fifty percent of new U.S. homes built in the last few decades have been in wildland-urban inner space areas. A lot of those areas are highly prone to wildfires.”

Sustainable rebuilding is vital to all areas rebuilding after the Camp Fire and Woolsey Fire.

According to the 2019 Corelogic Wildfire Risk Report, “As demand for housing grows and development expands outward from large cities, the Wildland-Urban Interface (the area where urban development lies adjacent to undeveloped or minimally developed wildland area that is prone to wildfire) is often the only location with the space to expand. Very frequently, that edge will border wildfire-prone vegetation. There are other communities similar to Paradise, where fuels are present, and homes are at risk. It only requires the right weather conditions and an errant spark to create the next unwanted record.”

“As we see this crisis around affordable housing, one of my big concerns is that there’s a push by housing advocates to build all types of housing everywhere we can build them. That’s not solving our housing crisis if we’re putting houses in areas where it’s not going to be sustainable,” says Meis.

Sustainable rebuilding is vital to all areas rebuilding after the Camp Fire and Woolsey Fire, but it will take time. “We lost about 8,500 structures in town. We have about 300 building permits applied for and 200 issued,” says Zuccolillo. “At this pace, you would have to build 400 homes a year non-stop for 20 years. You realize this isn’t a short-term project. Long-term, we may be a smaller town, but we’ll be a stronger, more sustainable town.

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