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Environment & Science

Relocate or rebuild? Wildfire victims consider their options

Fire damage is seen from the air in the Coffey Park neighborhood of Santa Rosa, California on October 11, 2017.
Fire damage is seen from the air in the Coffey Park neighborhood of Santa Rosa, California on October 11, 2017.

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The Atlas Fire ravaged Northern California five months ago, destroying thousands of homes and killing dozens. Since then, the people who survived but lost their homes have had to make tough decisions about where to live and whether to rebuild. Napa architect Brandon Jorgensen has encountered three types of responses: some who choose to leave the area, others who are rebuilding immediately, and a third group of more deliberate rebuilders. 

Jorgensen says the people who are relocating have a variety of reasons not to stick around, including dissatisfaction with insurance payouts and a sense of unease about their recently burnt surroundings:

They're also kind of devastated that the neighborhood that they may have lived in for ten years or longer is not going to be the same for quite a while, and they don't necessarily want to live around that and be reminded of what happened. 

The second group, according to Jorgensen, is not only rebuilding quickly, but also recreating their old homes instead of redesigning them in a less flammable manner: 

It's more of a reactive type of rebuilding than a responsive type of rebuilding. So if the fire comes through that area again, I would ... believe that their house would be up in flames again. 

Meanwhile, the third group is taking its time in order to design resilient houses that stand a better chance of surviving the next fire. This group, which includes some of Jorgensen's clients, are very active in the redesign process, even researching fireproofing strategies. "They are taking control in a more ... research-based manner," Jorgensen says. 

Jorgensen supports these efforts with a group he created called "Architecture of Resilience." Through that project, and his work, Jorgensen helps fire survivors plan to rebuild their houses away from natural chimneys, with less exterior wood, utilizing materials and design strategies that are less likely to lead to future ignitions.