The City of Santa Rosa Rebuilds After the Camp Fire

California spends billions rebuilding burned towns. The case for calling it quits

Trees planted by the city of Santa Rosa in the early 2000s. (Photo courtesy of Santa Rosa.)

Santa Rosa, the city hit hardest by the Mendocino Complex wildfire, is undergoing one of the biggest rebuilds in California history.

By the end of 2018, California will have replaced more than 50,000 homes in the urban core, 1,000 apartments, and 5,500 acres of the city’s residential neighborhoods. Just over $600 million in funds from the California Housing Finance Agency has been approved to help the city rebuild.

It’s not quite enough to save Santa Rosa from another wildfire: The city had a fire and two other small blazes earlier this year — all of which were extinguished before they reached their destinations. But those fires had been burning before Santa Rosa’s urban core was re-built in 2011. The city was left with little more than a handful of neighborhoods that had been burned into a pile of rubble — a wasteland that was barely improved by the original reconstruction.

That’s the kind of devastation that California’s urban centers inflict on themselves during the rebuilding process. In 2014, when the first waves of the Camp Fire burned through the Santa Rosa area, it tore through a dozen residential neighborhoods, an industrial park, and a shopping center. Most of the residents of those places were out of town, and weren’t even aware of the fires in their neighborhoods.

But as the fires were winding down, the city of Santa Rosa realized that it needed to rebuild the urban core. The most vulnerable neighborhoods were among the most damaged. And while the fires had burned large parts of the city, it wasn’t burned down — it was just leveled.

It was an unfortunate but not entirely surprising conclusion that many people drew — the destruction had been done before by nature.

In the decade since the fires, the city has rebuilt over 40,000 homes. It was among the first city’s to rebuild after the catastrophic events of the Great 1989 Oakland Bay Bridge fire. As recently as 2014, the city was also home to the worst brush fires in California history, with its neighborhoods burned by the Camp Fire all the way from northern Sonoma County to the city of Sebastopol. (This was a particularly bad year for wildfires in California, as the state’s other big fire season had already ended

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