Charred homes and crumbled walls: tallying the destruction of a California wildfire

Smoke mixed with morning mist on Mountain Hawk Drive in Santa Rosa, California, on Wednesday morning, creating a thick layer of gray that hung over the smoldering remains of family homes that had been charred by the Glass fire days before.

The fast-moving fire had arrived in the neighborhood on Monday night, consuming roughly an acre every five seconds and leveling many of the hillside homes. Now, remnants of lives lived lined the street. Melted squirt guns left on burned patio tables. A charred piano underneath askew picture frames. Homegrown apples on a singed tree were cooked on the vine.

Officials are still unclear how the Glass fire erupted, but fueled by last weekend’s heatwave and dry, windy conditions, it has burned through roughly 57,000 acres of northern California’s wine country and is only 5% contained.

Officials have begun assessing the damage – a process that they say could take weeks even after the flames have been extinguished. So far, roughly 400 structures have been deemed as damaged or destroyed, but the work is only just beginning. Assessors are being deployed across the state to determine just how bad this record-breaking fire season really is.

In addition to the Glass fire, another 26 wildfires are still burning across the state. More than 3.9m acres have gone up in flames this year, and officials report 30 people have died. More than 96,000 people across the state remained under evacuation orders by Thursday morning. The state’s count of burned buildings sits at 7,500 – but the tally is complicated.

California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, said last week that number would rise as crews are able to access areas in the fires’ footprint and examine burned buildings. Even then, the numbers won’t tell the full story. At least, that’s what Cindy Schalich, a senior code enforcement officer with the city of Santa Rosa, says.

On Wednesday morning she was one of the few people walking through the evacuated neighborhood. It’s her job to determine whether a home needs to be demolished or if it can be saved. After working for the city for 31 years she has enough experience to know – even if the bones of the house are intact it may be just as far gone as one that’s leveled. The process, she said, could take weeks. She and the three other city workers out on Mountain Hawk Drive on Wednesday morning had just started that day.

“Every time it is just heartbreaking,” she said. “You can see inside people’s homes. Their lives. The positivity in this one is the fact that we are now so aware,” she added. “They did save so many homes. If there is any positivity, I think that would be it – but this community is hurting.”

The home she was standing in front of was missing a ceiling. All that was left of the windows were toothy chards. Inside it looked like a bomb exploded, but frayed pictures still hung on the fridge. The bed, under a pile of soot, was made with a flowery duvet. Outside an autumnal flag hung proudly on a post, waved, unscathed. She marked the house down as destroyed, shaking her head.

“This is every August, September and October,” she said. “It’s exhausting.” Across the street, homes appeared to be untouched down to their manicured lawns and landscaped walkways. They are the ones that are harder to assess.

“Even though their home is still standing – and that is such a blessing – they will have severe smoke damage,” she explained.

For those who have a house to come home to, a long process lies ahead. Cleaning crews will have to come in, electrical evaluations will have to be done and insurance claims will have to be filed. “Plus they have the trauma of what they have been through. People are getting so weary.”

Derick Redman, another city worker deployed for damage assessment, said their teams have learned from past fires not to rely on just the outside of a home to determine the damage. Approaching one of the homes that appears to be unscathed, he notes the drooping blinds inside the windows. “There is obviously heat damage to the outside,” he says. “We will require an electrical evaluation. So, the utility doesn’t come in, give ’em power, and start the whole house on fire.”

He moved on to its neighbor, which appeared to have been licked by the flames. “It is almost a total loss,” he said. There is evidence that rocks in the foundation have exploded and will need further assessment from an engineer.

“It is all over the map,” he continued. “Some have some window damage. Here, the fire got in at the fireplace – they are going to need an electrical report,” he adds pointing to a gaping hole in one home. “The gas line was melted. The fire department went in and took the ceiling down. There is water damage.”

Redman has seen it all through the years. One home, he recalled, looked pristine on the outside. But when they let the homeowners back in they found everything torched inside. The outside heat ignited window coverings and burned through the rooms. “Then it snuffed itself out, having no oxygen,” he said.