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With 5% of its housing destroyed by fire, Santa Rosa faces wrenching questions about its future

Santa Rosa lost 5% of its housing stock to the deadly wildfire. (Oct. 24, 2017)

The most destructive wildfire in California history has left Santa Rosa at a fateful crossroads.

The city lost 3,000 homes — fully 5% of its housing stock — in the fire. Thousands remain displaced, and many are not sure where they will end up or whether they can continue to afford living in wine country, where housing is expensive and in chronically short supply.

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"Nobody has been through this before," Mayor Chris Coursey said Monday. "We had a housing problem three weeks ago; now we have housing problem minus 3,000 more houses."

Many residents said they intended to rebuild as soon as possible. But officials are just beginning to work out how that will happen — and many wonder where they will live in the meantime.

"The first reaction of anyone in a situation like this is, 'I am going to stay...and stand my ground,' " Coursey said. "As that gets harder for some people, I hope that they will still show that resolve. It's hard — I still have a house — for me to tell people what to do. But I really want people to stay in this community."

Some conflicts are already emerging. Some residents are concerned about the cleanup process in neighborhoods burned by the fires. They worry the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will remove workable home foundations, increasing the costs of rebuilding.

Cleaning the debris alone could last into early 2018.

Santa Rosa, with a population of 175,000, is the largest city in the region. Officials have estimated the losses to property at $1 billion just within the city limits as the Tubbs fire swept through business districts, mobile home parks, upscale neighborhoods like Fountaingrove as well as suburban tracts like Coffey Park.

For some, the next move is clear.

"Rebuild. Rebuild. That is the only word you will hear around here," said Maggie London, 64, who lost her home with dozens of pieces of art in Rincon Valley.

"There is a sense of community we are all going to rebuild," added Dee Dee Bridges, 70, whose 3,300-square-foot home was destroyed in Fountaingrove. "We aren't going anywhere… I want to rebuild fast. I haven't got time to wait."

For others, the future is likely to be more complex.

Oscar Wei, a senior economist at the California Assn. of Realtors, said the housing supply around Santa Rosa was already tight even before the fires. Sonoma County's roughly $600,000 median home price, while high — almost triple the national average — is still lower than San Francisco, where the median price exceeds a million dollars, he said.

"Because of that difference, in the last few years, a lot of people who could not afford to live in San Francisco or Santa Clara, they move farther north, out to counties like Sonoma," he said.

Wei said the fires not only cut into the city's the housing supply, but are also likely to drive up rental prices because rental properties were destroyed, too.

Still, he predicted that once new construction starts and the city enters the rebuilding phase, Santa Rosa will remain a desirable place to live.

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"In California, every area near the mountains, we could have fire," he said. "I honestly don't think that, as far as Santa Rosa and wine country are concerned, in the long term it will affect sales that much. People will go back."

Two weeks after flames tore through the region, people remained at emergency shelters in Sonoma County.

Sitting on a bed in the shelter at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, Imelda Flores had nothing to do but contemplate the unknown. In many ways, she's lucky. Her Santa Rosa home still stands. But her 12-year-old son is sick, and his desperately needed caretaker is now in limbo after losing her house.

"I don't know if I'll be able to find another nurse now," Flores said. "I don't have anyone who can understand his situation."

Her son, James Lopez, was born with a bad lung and a weak immune system. He needs a machine to pump food into his stomach, and if that's done incorrectly, he could get an infection. A nurse has to stay by his side, even at school.

"I may need to go to school to personally feed him," Flores said. "I may become his nurse."

The mother and son have been staying at the Grace Pavilion at the fairgrounds all this time because lingering smoke from the massive fires could endanger James' fragile health. A simple cold can quickly turn to pneumonia, she said, and he will still wear a face mask at least for a few more days.

The first few nights at the shelter were the worst.

"People were waking up screaming. Some were crying, and some people would storm in here, desperately looking for relatives," she said. "It was just difficult and sad."

The good news, authorities said, was that firefighters anticipate full containment of the fires in hard-hit Sonoma County this week.

The Tubbs fire, the most destructive wildfire in California history, was 94% contained Monday afternoon after charring 36,807 acres, including swaths of Santa Rosa, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. The 56,556-acre Nuns fire was 90% contained, and the 17,357-acre Pocket fire was 89% contained.

At a special Red Cross shelter set up at the fairgrounds for pet owners, Forrest Smith, a 53-year-old bus driver for the city of Santa Rosa, lay on a cot while his small black-and-white dog, Jazz, licked his cheek.

He had been living in a hotel, trying to find a new place to live when the wildfire swept through the storage unit where he kept all his belongings. Everything he has left is in his truck.

On the day of the fire, Smith said he and other bus drivers helped evacuate people from retirement homes. He alone helped six people evacuate. Since then, he hasn't been working much. He's volunteered at the shelter, cleaning cots, throwing out trash and doing anything he can to keep his mind off the lingering questions.

"How am I going to find a place for me and my dog?" he asked.

Outside, sitting on a folded chair, 61-year-old Steve Champ, who has been homeless for more than 10 years, only felt sadness. He lost his bicycle and the orange tent where he slept. He had a few photos of his family in a zip-lock bag. The fire destroyed it.

Champ said he doesn't know where to even begin when it comes to starting over. He had found a new sleeping place at Coffey Park — but the community was left in ruins. He supposes he'll seek help at homeless shelters and religious organizations.

"I'll let God guide me," he said.

Vives and Winton reported from Santa Rosa, Branson-Potts from Los Angeles.

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