Fresh off last week’s rain that extinguished the deadly fire in Butte County and washed the soot out of skies across Northern California, two new storms are blowing in from the Pacific Ocean, bringing wet weather through Friday.
Rain began Tuesday across the Bay Area, becoming heavier Tuesday night, forecasters said Tuesday. Then, the real action begins.
A second, heavier storm system is forecast to soak the region Wednesday, peaking Wednesday night into Thursday.
Strong, gusty winds will blow, particularly in the high elevations. And by Friday morning, most cities in the Bay Area should receive 1 to 1.5 inches of rain, with the North Bay hills, Santa Cruz Mountains and parts of the coast getting 3 inches or more. The Chico-Paradise area is forecast to receive about 2 inches of rain.
After a dry November, with deadly wildfires and hot temperatures, fears were beginning to creep up that California might be heading into another dry winter. At least for now, the current pattern has set things right.
During last week’s storms, Napa County recorded as much as 6 inches of rain on Mount Veeder, with 3 inches falling at the City of Napa’s corporation yard in mid-town. Other locations on the valley floor received a little more than 2 inches, according to county rain gauges.
“We’re back in the ballgame,” said Jan Null, a meteorologist with Golden Gate Weather Services in Saratoga. “It’s a normal beginning of winter. And it’s only fall. That’s good news.”
Winter doesn’t officially start until Dec. 21.
But the second storm this week, which some forecasters say may end up being a weak atmospheric river, also known as a “pineapple express,” has the potential to remind Northern Californians of how much it can rain and bluster when conditions are right.
“We’re expecting the rain to stall out over the mountains in Big Sur,” said Scott Rowe, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Monterey. “There could be mudslides on Highway 1. It could rain half a foot there.”
The National Weather Service on Monday issued a high surf advisory for coastal areas from Point Reyes National Seashore to Big Sur. A westerly swell with heights of 13 to 16 feet is expected to arrive Tuesday, forecasters said, peaking on Wednesday, and subsiding by early Friday. The swell is expected to produce breaking waves of roughly 18 to 24 feet high, with some spots at times exceeding a dangerously big 25 feet.
The rain will cause a rough commute Wednesday and Thursday morning around the Bay Area, forecasters said.
“We are going to get ponding of water on the roadways. Expect traffic delays,” Rowe said.
But the storms also will bring several key benefits.
The wind and waves will sweep away the last of the soot in the air in those places across Northern California that aren’t entirely back to normal after the Camp Fire destroyed the town of Paradise and burned for nearly three weeks.
Another 2 inches or so of rain on top of the amount that fell last week dramatically reduces fire risk in most Northern California locations, at least through the end of 2018.
“If this next storm does have the rainfall that is predicted, it is going to put a lid on most potential fires in Northern California,” Null said. “We’ll get some green grass in areas. The firefighters I’ve been talking to are really happy.”
The rains are also boosting precipitation totals, even if it is early in the rainy season.
“Storm system after storm system, it does add up,” Rowe said.
“There’s still a lot of winter left to go,” he added. “A lot can happen. These two systems have been greatly beneficial in digging us out of the hole we had to start the water year.”
It will take several more big storms before the ground is saturated enough for water to begin running off into reservoirs, increasing water storage. On Monday afternoon, many of the state’s reservoirs were still in fair decent shape, having been filled to the top in the winter of 2016-17.
Shasta Lake, the state’s largest reservoir, was 47 percent full Monday, or 80 percent of its historic average for this date. San Luis Reservoir, near Los Banos, was 58 percent full, or 98 percent of its historic average. And Folsom was 34 percent full or 71 percent of its average.
This year’s California wildfires have been the most destructive in state history, killing at least 100 people and burning nearly 1.7 million acres. The 2017 wildfires, which included major conflagrations in Napa County, were the second-most destructive.
Given the growing frequency of such events, the decision to allow people to rebuild is controversial. Some say that rebuilding puts an unfair burden on taxpayers and insurance policyholders—particularly those not living in fire-prone areas—to shoulder the reconstruction costs.
State and local officials largely side with homeowners who want to rebuild. The state has clamped down on insurers that want to raise rates or drop homeowners seeking to rebuild. And local officials have expedited the building permit process, clearing the way for reconstruction.
For people who have rebuilt, or who are in the process of doing so, the new fires conjure not only scary reminders, but second thoughts about whether they made the right decision in opting to return.
Still, many are determined to see their communities rise from the ashes, saying: Where else would we go?
Starting over after a wildfire is far from simple. Yes, there’s the recognition that the most precious things—collectibles, heirlooms, photos, souvenirs—can never be replaced. And, yes, there’s a sense of excitement in building a new home. But dealing with the trauma of the losses while reconstructing a home, neighborhood and community nearly from scratch can be emotionally daunting and overwhelming, residents say.
Last year in Santa Rosa, as chunky embers fell around her car, and houses caught fire as she was evacuating, Tricia Woods, 47, was convinced that she’d be returning to her Northern California community.
“It’s still not in my head right now that my house is burning down—right now—even though it was,” she said, describing the cognitive dissonance she felt as she was fleeing with her three children.
A year later, construction is well underway on her do-over home in Coffey Park, a residential neighborhood in northern Santa Rosa where more than 1,200 homes were burned.
It’s been a bittersweet journey. She lost everything inside. She was underinsured. But everyone was safe.
Woods said she views the rebuilding as an opportunity to create not exactly a dream home, but a better home for where she is now in life.
“I’m a silver-lining girl,” she said during a break between classes at the school where she teaches.
A year after the Tubbs Fire, which together with the other Northern California fires in fall 2017 killed 44 people and caused billions of dollars in damage across multiple counties, many lots in Santa Rosa are empty. A handful of houses have been rebuilt, and some, like Woods’, are somewhere in between.
People who decided to rebuild face several common challenges. A labor and material shortage. Confusion about debris removal. An increase in material costs because of tariffs. Some insurance companies no longer providing coverage. And a loss so widespread, many who would have been in a position to help with rebuilding efforts—architects, lawyers—were themselves affected, causing still more delays.
Mike Behler, owner of Behler Construction in Santa Rosa, said a series of updated fire-safety building codes were enacted several years ago, and there have been no new codes in these fires’ aftermath.
In wildlife-urban interface zones, which are in rural areas of Sonoma County, homes use tempered glass, fire-resistant siding and decking, sprinklers, gutter covers to keep leaves out and, in some cases, water storage, he said.
Behler said he’s also observed people making new homes more fire-resistant on their own—using plaster and metal instead of wood, for example.
“All the houses will definitely have upgraded systems,” he said.
For 12 years, Chris Keys, 43, was homeless, battling a drug addiction. In 2017, he was healthy, married, employed, a father of three, and living in the upper-middle-class neighborhood of Fountaingrove, east of Coffey Park. When he got word his house had burned, he said he thought, “Here we go again.”
He moved his family into his office for a few nights. Eventually, they resettled in a rental.
When he started thinking about rebuilding, he froze. He’d never designed a house, and it was the last thing he wanted to do, under the circumstances. His wife was even less interested: “[She]would tell you, ‘Just put a roof up and four walls and let us move in,’ “ he said.
That echoes what Keith Woods, chief executive officer of the North Coast Builders Exchange, a trade group, said: When he speaks to groups, he asks people to raise their hands if they’ve ever built a house from the ground up. Not picking floors from one of several options in a plan home, but working out every single detail, every step of the way.
“I’m going to say less than 1 percent have been through that,” Keith Woods (no relation to Tricia Woods) said. The huge learning curve, paired with the emotional damage and the uncertainty—about timelines, budgets, regulations—make building a house after a fire that much harder.
Keys asked an architect friend for the blueprint to his own house, which Keys liked, and a list of suggested tweaks. His new house, in the early stages of construction, will have four bedrooms (same as before) and roughly the same size: about 2,900 square feet.
The previous house, built in the 1970s, had a step-down living room, but the new ground floor will be all on one level. They will move the laundry room upstairs, expand a half-bath into a full bath and add a large porch, because his wife always wants a Southern-style veranda.
The biggest change is adding a one-bedroom unit of about 600 square feet, which might bring rental income, house any of their aging parents or serve as lodging for their autistic son one day.
“They incentivized it to the point where you’d be kind of stupid not to do it,” he said of the extra unit.
Every decision Keys and his wife, Sara, made was with an eye to the home’s resale value.
“We’re choosing to look into the future, kind of like what a city council would do with a general plan for the city. I’m trying to find out what’s going to be standard in 20 years. And that’s where we’re spending our resources.”
There was one exception. “The master bathroom was the only thing we decided to be super-selfish on. Because we need that,” he said. With three children, the bathroom was “the only place we get some alone time.” They splurged on a double Jacuzzi tub and installed a rain forest shower head.
Financially, they are making sacrifices.
They bought their old house on an 8,900-square-foot lot for $575,000 in May 2015. They used insurance money—$485,000 for the house and $318,000 of their contents—for the rebuilding. Keys said they’ll fill the inside over time.
Speaking about the loss as he faced his now-empty lot, the sun shining on a fall afternoon, Keys said the hardest part has been “the emotional aspect. Trying to recover from something like this, there are no silver linings that are silver enough. And I’ve been homeless, on the streets. . . . I would go months at a time without anybody knowing my name.”
Woods, the trade group leader, said less than 5 percent of people will rebuild the home they lost.
But for those who do, he said: “Now is their chance to upgrade that kitchen, add a bath, make a game room.”
People who bought properties decades ago now want to age in place, so they’re modifying their floor plans to ditch the second story, he said.
Plan homes are costing roughly $250 per square foot, he said, while custom homes are costing $400 to $500 per square foot or more—with prices shooting up for luxury features.
Ray Willett, principal of TBE Architecture of Santa Rosa, a firm that is rebuilding nine homes lost in the fires, said people want “smaller, more efficient” houses.
“It’s trending down,” in terms of square footage, he said. People are also looking to “create an opportunity for income,” he said, such as with accessory rental units.
Stylistically, “funky Tudor styles” are going away, and he’s seeing more interest in Eichler looks.
Tricia Woods, a seventh-grade teacher, sat her children down after the fire and asked them what they wanted in a new house.
Her oldest, a teenager with a foot out the door, said he didn’t care.
Her middle son, 15, answered: a wardrobe instead of a closet.
“I’m like, it still takes up the same amount of space, kid,” she said with a chuckle.
And her daughter, 13, wanted a secret Murphy door that looks like a bookcase, which connects to her mother’s bedroom. A reflection, Woods said, of her fear and insecurity since the fire.
For Woods, too, the rebuild has been a chance to identify what matters to her now.
“I designed it for me,” she said. “This is where I plan to live.”
An entertainer who loves to cook, she knew immediately that the kitchen would be her focus. She chose Himalayan Moon quartz counters, off-white with flecks of beige and gray. There will be a large island with a raised bar and a window above the kitchen sink, so she can look into the yard when she’s washing vegetables or preparing one of her favorites, polenta with sugo.
She tweaked the facade, opting for a Craftsman look—a long desired upgrade from the “very boring” tract home with wood siding and “no architectural detail” she had before.
The rest of the new house will closely resemble the old: four bedrooms, 2 1/2 baths. She added 400 square feet by pushing out a wall, because it cost the same as indenting it.
The plan was to include an outdoor room in the back, but that’s on hold until she can afford it.
She bought her old house in 2015 for $512,000, and it is costing $756,000 to rebuild. “And that’s not including the lot,” Woods said.
She’s financing the first phase with a $50,000 loan from her IRA and a $200,000 insurance settlement for the contents of the burned house. She is still waiting for funds for the burned structure, to finish the project.
Like Keys, she’s adding a front porch.
After knocking on neighbors’ doors the night their lives changed and banding together in the next chapter, they want to keep in better touch.
“So many of us put front porches on our homes. None of the houses used to have front porches,” Woods said.
Isaac Kearns-Montanez is not your average college student.
For one thing, he started college at age 11, when he enrolled at Solano Community College. The Napa native also took classes at Napa Valley College while a student at First Christian school and then St. Apollinaris school.
As a Napa Valley Independent Studies student, Isaac blazed through high school and college requirements simultaneously.
Now age 16, Isaac is a senior at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. By this spring — when he’s barely 17 — he’ll graduate. He will be the youngest to ever do so at the southern university, according to the school.
Next, Isaac will start law school, which he plans to complete by age 19.
“A lot of school always seemed like common sense to me,” said the young student. “I can remember the content (and) I was able to go through it very quickly,” he said modestly.
“He’s always had extremely high standards for himself,” said his father, David Montanez, who works in Napa in the mortgage industry.
When his son was in fifth grade, “he brought up the idea to start taking college courses,” said Montanez.
“I thought it was pretty crazy at the time,” his father admitted.
He worried there’d be too much of an age gap.
“But we enrolled him — one class per semester — and he started going to classes” after his regular school dismissed each day.
Accompanied by his mother, Jacqueline Hodges, or father, “We’d sit in on the classes (and) watch him and his interactions with other people,” Montanez said.
“He enjoyed the structure of college,” his dad realized.
His son is driven and self-motivated, said Montanez. “He knows he can accomplish a lot.”
“When I decide to do something, I go 100 percent,” Isaac said. “I just get rid of all distractions when I need to.”
With enough units to transfer to a four-year university, Isaac chose the University of Alabama.
The move was made much easier because Isaac lives in Alabama with his mother and stepfather, who also moved to the Tuscaloosa area.
His mother works for the university and his stepfather is in the military, said Isaac.
At the University of Alabama, Isaac is about to earn a degree in political science with a minor in public policy. His GPA is 4.0.
That’s not to say there haven’t been challenges. Isaac has dyslexia. While he’s had accommodations in the past – such as more time to take a test — he choose not to ask for such help at the university, even though “there definitely have been times when it’s been harder.”
The student said he welcomes challenges because they lead to a feeling of accomplishment.
Isaac said that when his fellow students find out his age, the response varies.
“They are usually quite amazed,” he said. “The fact that I’m 16 rarely is relevant. I just consider myself to be a normal college student.”
“I keep telling him, tell everybody how old you are,” said his father. “Let them know you’re still a minor. He says, ‘They all know dad.’”
Isaac said people sometimes ask if he’s a genius. He hasn’t taken an official IQ test. “Ultimately, IQ is something that I don’t really have control over.”
Asked to what he attributes his academic success and speed, Isaac said, “I just figured out how to get through the system early.”
Besides classes, Isaac said he participates in college activities. At Alabama, he was an intern at the education policy center, part of the honors college and joined a pre-law club. “I definitely fit in,” he said.
One thing that probably helped is that Isaac said he looks older than his age.
“I’m 6-1, and if I want I can grow out a beard,” he said.
His first choice for law school is Yale, he said. But he also plans to apply to Harvard, Stanford, the University of Alabama, possibly the University of Virginia and the University of Michigan, and others.
“Since I was in seventh and eighth grade, I was very interested in politics,” he said. In addition to recent changes in U.S. politics, “I especially find global events very interesting right now.”
Montanez is “extremely happy and proud,” of his son.
“Age doesn’t matter,” said his father. “He’s living proof.”
Jacob Wayne Hutchins has spent a majority of his life behind bars for a gang-related murder he committed at 18 years old.
Hutchins, who has been incarcerated for more than 20 years, was sentenced to 40 years to life. Now, Gov. Jerry Brown has commuted his sentence to give Hutchins an earlier shot at making his case for release on parole.
Brown’s office wrote in a statement last week that Hutchins had rehabilitated himself and his conduct was exemplary. Brown, who is nearing the end of his term, ordered 70 commutations and 38 pardons last week.
In May 1998, Hutchins and fellow gang members decided to retaliate against a rival gang member after hearing their car had a flat tire in Napa, according to the statement.
Hutchins fired into a group of people surrounding the broken-down car in a drive-by shooting, killing Michael Arreguin. The Napa County Superior Court sentenced him to 15 years to life for murder, plus another 25 years to life because Hutchins used a gun.
“At the time, I was a teenage runaway, highly intoxicated on drugs and alcohol,” Hutchins wrote in an application for clemency, or mercy granted by a governor or president. “As a new member of this gang, I was willing to do anything to prove myself and be accepted.”
An investigator said Hutchins was deeply sorry about his crimes and believes his time behind bars helped him understand what he has done to his victims and the community, according to the statement.
In prison, Hutchins disavowed gang affiliations and participated in groups such as Narcotics Anonymous, Victim Awareness, Criminals and Gangmembers Anonymous, and Criminal and Addictive Thinking, according to the statement. He’s received training in business, technology, office services and auto mechanics.
An instructor said Hutchins was sincerely interested in learning more and quick to help other students, according to the statement.
“Mr. Hutchins has shown by his behavior and the manner in which he interacts with others, that he is committed to maintaining a positive change in his life,” the instructor wrote last year. “Along with encouraging others to do the same and remain crime free.”
Hutchins now has the opportunity to ask for release from prison on parole before the Board of Parole Hearings on a date to be determined. The board has the authority to decline his request.