Real State

Hounded by Wildfires, Californians Rethink Their Willingness to Rebuild

Since the Camp Fire, Mr. Singer and his wife, Shannon, have been renting an apartment in Chico, about 20 miles away, while navigating the various headaches — insurance, zoning, construction, planning — required to rebuild their home. They have also started a nonprofit, Paradise Stronger, which utilizes their background in fitness coaching to bring mental health care to residents coping with trauma from the disaster. At first, they were committed to being part of Paradise’s ambitious recovery plan to rebuild the entire city from scratch, which includes more parks and green space, fire-safe landscaping and improved evacuation routes and warning systems.

But then came the 2020 fire season, which pushed new hellish vocabulary into the lexicon — “megafires,” “hot drought.” Fire-whipping winds, which force preventive power shut-offs, are now standard practice. In October, the Singers found themselves once again evacuating their land, except this time, the fire was both on its way and had already had its feast.

“This time around, the area that got evacuated first was exactly where our home would have been,” Mr. Singer, 43, said. “All you could see was smoke. The PTSD was rampant.”

His wife decided she had had enough.

“She turned to me and said, ‘I’m not sure I want to rebuild. I’m not sure this is where I want to be anymore,’” Mr. Singer said. For his part, he says, he would be willing to stick it out — but not at the expense of his relationship.

“I see the vision of this town, and I want to be a part of that, but not if it means my marriage,” Mr. Singer said.

For now, the couple has hit the pause button on their rebuild plans. If they do move forward, they’re also looking at spending $100,000 out of pocket. Their rebuild plans are for a smaller but more fire-safe home on the same property, and the estimated cost is $250,000. They received $145,000 for the structure that burned; like nearly 60 percent of American households, they learned after the fact that they were vastly underinsured.

Many insurers have also abandoned policies all together in areas deemed too high a risk: The California Department of Insurance in October reported that refusals from home insurers to renew policies rose by 31 percent statewide in 2019, and that percentage jumped to 61 percent in ZIP codes with elevated fire risk.

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