Five years ago, on Oct. 8, 2017, at 10 p.m., the Tubbs Fire erupted in a wildland area north of Calistoga, California. It took just a few hours for the fire to consume more than 20,000 acres, and to travel about 12 miles into densely populated neighborhoods in the town of Santa Rosa. Witnesses reported fire tornadoes that flipped vehicles, ripped trees from the ground and flung garage doors into the street. The deadliest and most destructive of the North Bay fires, the Tubbs Fire claimed 22 lives, burned approximately 37,000 acres and either damaged or destroyed almost 6,000 structures.
The Tubbs Fire — which lasted for more than 23 days — was one of several that occurred in the wine country of Northern California in October of 2017. These fires were collectively known as the October Firestorm.
How Did These Damaging Burns Happen After Years of Drought in California?
In the winter of 2016 and through the spring of 2018, record-setting precipitation occurred in different parts of California. The resulting fuel load and other factors set the stage for a dry autumn – in other words, prime conditions for the rapid-fire spread that occurred on the morning of Oct. 8. The fire grew rapidly due to heavy winds of up to 70 mph (and at least 20-30 mph at various times and locations). Continued high wind speeds even pushed the fire into the city of Santa Rosa where thousands of homes were eventually lost, mostly within the first 8 hours.
Driven by strong winds from the northeast, the fire front advanced 12 miles towards Santa Rosa in the first 3 hours and engulfed hundreds of homes within the Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) that designates higher-risk areas due to vegetation and proximity to wildlands. Winds that reached a peak of 60 mph helped the fire leap over U.S. Highway 101 and eventually more than 1,000 homes in the suburban Coffey Park subdivision were destroyed. The destruction of homes in non-wildlands Coffey Park highlight how wildfire can spread rapidly building to building in an urban area in the absence of significant burnable vegetation. At the time, the Tubbs Fire became the most destructive in California history. To quantify the destruction, CoreLogic estimated the value of property loss at $5 to $7 billion from the Tubbs Fire.
The Economic Effects and Aftermath of Wildfire
As with other natural disasters, the October Firestorm had significant impacts on the county’s economy , including personal economics for thousands of households. The damage and destruction of homes and businesses disrupted the regular cadence of business, and thus income. Drop-offs in compensation resulted in payment delinquency – increased mortgage defaults, for example. Three months after the Tubbs Fire, the serious delinquency rate on home mortgages had spiked to about 50% in Sonoma County before beginning to recede the next month. While payment forbearance programs provided by lenders, mortgage insurers and secondary market investors alleviated some financial stress for people, local default rates still rose.
The loss of housing inventory in affected areas also impacts the cost of both rent and home ownership. Six months after the Tubbs Fire, Sonoma County saw an annual rent growth of nearly 11% and an annual home price growth of nearly 3% after the disaster. At the time the wildfires struck the locale, home price growth was running at or slower than the statewide rate; after the disasters, price growth accelerated to four to seven percentage points faster than statewide growth.
Over the last five years, the City of Santa Rosa has focused its resources on rebuilding what was lost. The latest city data states that of the 3,043 residential units destroyed, 288 are in the permit review process, 440 are in construction and 2,176 of the structures have been completed.
Wildfires: Understanding Risk to Alleviate Disaster
Wildfire will continue to threaten homeownership and endanger people’s physical and financial livelihoods. The fuels that contributed to the Tubbs Fire were consumed in 2017 within the fire’s perimeter, but fuels like these always regrow over time. With California’s return to intense ongoing drought conditions, the overall fire risk of the impacted area in Sonoma County is the same as, or higher than, it was before the Tubbs Fire. And as it did with the Tubbs Fire, once these fires reach urban areas, they become urban firestorms and burn homes regardless of whether fuels are present..
Understanding this risk is critical to reducing it. As builders construct neighborhoods and commercial buildings farther into wildland areas, everyone involved must understand that they are likely developing within wildfire-prone land. Such development amplifies the climatological and terrain-related wildfire risk factors that already exist.
For insurers, understanding risk at a granular level is paramount to adequately protecting homeowners and to be able to support them at the first notice of loss. On the other hand, it is crucial for homeowners to work hand-in-hand with insurers to understand the financial implications of a given degree of fire risk associated with the location of their home and actions they can perform to mitigate this risk. When communities work together to take steps in mitigating risk, they make significant strides toward ensuring the safety of homes, businesses and families.