As California’s most destructive fire season ever comes to an end, areas ravaged by the fires are debating on moving forward in the process of rebuilding.
On Oct. 8, a series of wildfires broke out in Northern California. According to Cal Fire, the fires devastated more than 245,000 acres and caused over 100,000 people to evacuate.
Residents of the compromised areas are now being faced with the challenges of whether or not to rebuild the places they once called home — and whether or not it is even worth it.
Matt Bernal, who lost his home in Clearlake, California, to the Sulphur Fire has said he is unsure if California will ever be the same again. When seeing his home, he described the scene as surreal and disheartening.
“When I got there, the level of devastation was absolutely mind-boggling,” Bernal said. “There was just nothing left.”
Chief of Lake County Fire, George Murch, says that the destruction caused by the fires was one of the most devastating things he has seen in his time in the line of duty.
“The fire consumed both escape routes, causing people to have to take their boats into the lake to try and get away from the fires,” Murch said. “I’m just relieved no members of my crew were hurt. It’s truly a miracle.”
This mass destruction of thousands of homes across Northern California has left residents and victims of the fire in the middle of a difficult decision of whether or not rebuilding is wise.
“Even though our home is insured, it is unlikely that we will ever rebuild our home here in Clearlake,” Bernal said.
The city planner of Clearlake, Julie Burrow, said that the city does have plans to rebuild, however.
“There is nothing holding back residents from rebuilding their homes,” Burrow said.
Burrow says that laws for where houses can be built within Clearlake have changed in recent years, causing the devastation to the houses.
“Back when the homes were zoned, they were zoned as ‘U’ for unknown. There wasn’t anything that went with it. But over the years it got changed where it fits more into where the R-1 is and such.”
According to the National Academy of Sciences, zoning laws and guidelines are in place to assist urban growth and development, but they are also to ensure safety in what buildings are used for. Zoning gives permission to the landowners for what buildings on the land can be used for, such as residential, industrial, commercial and agricultural.
Due to the disastrous effects of the fires in areas such as Clearlake, Santa Rosa and Napa, city officials and former residents, such as Bernal and Burrow, are now questioning whether or not rebuilding structures in the burned areas is a good idea.
This hesitation stems from the fact structures, which were mostly homes, were built many years ago under different zoning laws. According to Burrow, when Bernal’s home was built in the mid-1970s, the state of wildfires had not escalated to the level of severity it is at now due to the drought drying vegetation throughout the state.
While Burrow acknowledges homes in the past were built without recognizing the dangers that wildfires could impose on thousands of residents, she believes it is possible for Clearlake to recover from this disaster.
“The city of Clearlake has plans to come back from this giant wildfire and be as great as we were beforehand,” Burrow said.
However Bernal says rebuilding his former home is impractical and near impossible.
“It wouldn’t make sense to build again,” Bernal said. “It is an extremely daunting task at the moment. It is taking a long time just to deal with the aftermath, and even if I rebuilt, my neighbors would most likely never return.”
George Murch, the Chief of Lake County Fire, believes rebuilding will be inevitable due to the high-volume population in California.
“This fire was the first of its kind, so we might expect another one but I highly doubt it,” Murch said.
While there are differing opinions on whether residential rebuilding will occur in the future, the reconstruction of homes will ultimately be decided by the residents.
Burrow says whether residents are wishing to rebuild their homes or not, the city of Clearlake is encouraging them to.
“The fires are not going to change anything having to do with zoning for the parcels affected,” Burrow said. “I don’t think this fire is going to change the way people live here.”
Olivia Ali can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @NevadaSagebrush.