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Out of the Ashes: The Crowleys Built a Resilient New Home

Published on 07/06/2023

By Suzanne Pletcher

A story from the Nuns Fire on its five year anniversary.

On the day that the Nuns wildfire tore through Glen Ellen and parts of Santa Rosa, destroying 75 wine country homes, including her own, Cathy Crowley was in New York City visiting family.

“My phone rang at 5 a.m. in the morning, which would have been 2 a.m. Santa Rosa time, and a neighbor who is a close friend told me they were evacuating and that Bennett Ridge behind our house was on fire,” the now-retired health care information technology consultant remembered.

She and her husband Paul tuned into early TV coverage and then called her husband’s boss, who also was a neighbor. The news was grim: The boss recounted driving through flames as one of the last to leave the neighborhood at 3 a.m. When he drove by the Crowley’s house, he told them, it was still standing. But the land behind it was in flames.

As the next morning’s daylight illuminated the extent of the disaster, they learned from another neighbor that the home they had lived in since 2002 was completely wiped out.

The Crowleys were left with whatever was in the two suitcases that they had taken to New York and the 23-year-old car they had parked at the airport when they left town (the newer cars were left at the house).

Crowley’s first reaction was disbelief. “It takes a long time to totally comprehend obviously what happened,” she said.

The day after the fire, she spent more time on her phone than ever before in her life, fielding hundreds of calls from family and friends wondering if she and Paul were all right and calling insurance companies trying to figure out what was next.

But they weren’t alone. Some of their closest friends’ and neighbors’ homes also burned.

“We had a network of people to talk to who were going through exactly what we were going through. It really was one of the most helpful things, especially in the first days when you have to figure out next steps,” she said.

Facebook pages were set up to share information. A group of people who shared the same insurance company was set up. The County opened legal aid centers where the Crowleys and others could get new social security cards, driver’s licenses, passport applications, and information about resources available to them.

A neighbor submitted their name to his Toastmasters group and the group showered them with gift certificates for grocery stores, restaurants, and clothing stores. “It was just really helpful. When you go through something like this, you are so drained of energy that it is great to be able to just go out to eat,” Cathy said.

A friend gave them use of her home while she was away for six weeks visiting family. Then they landed just seven miles down the road at a former Airbnb. The place hadn’t burned but was in the middle of a charred landscape where no one would want to vacation, so the owners rented it long-term to the Crowleys. The house was a blessing, Cathy said, because it had everything: sheets, dishware, cable TV. They walked in and had a functional home.

Early on, they decided to rebuild: This time, a home of the future with reduced dependence upon the fossil fuel emissions that cause climate change.

I love this area, and our neighbors said they were going to rebuild so we had confidence that it really was going to come back. We had a lot of support, networking, and the economic advantages of having really good insurance.

Cathy Crowley

But first the debris at the site had to be removed. Then they had to find an architect and contractor.

“Finding a contractor in itself would have been a real challenge but we had added an addition to our house in 2015 and so we called our builder literally the week after the fire and asked him to put us on his list to rebuild our house,” Cathy explained.

It was during the rebuilding process and meetings with the architect, builder, and various community information groups that the Crowleys learned about the Advanced Energy Rebuild (AER) program created by Sonoma Clean Power, Pacific Gas & Electric, and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District to help homeowners rebuild energy-efficient, resilient homes.

Someone may have said, “I’m putting in rooftop solar,” and another would respond, “Did you know you can get this AER grant to help with that?” Cathy recalled. She consulted Scott Salyer, the AER program manager at Sonoma Clean Power, who helped her enroll in the program.

The Crowley’s new home was built using insulated concrete forms instead of wood framing. It has rooftop solar and a back-up battery, for which Sonoma Clean Power provided an additional $5,000 in incentives. It is all-electric, airtight, and warmed and cooled using heat pump technology.

AER provided a free electric vehicle (EV) charger that the Crowleys installed on the outside of the house.

The only aspect of building an all-electric home that gave them pause was the stove.

My husband is a fabulous cook, and some friends who also are cooks and were rebuilding decided they couldn’t give up having a gas stove and would not go with an induction stove, which we did. And we love it. My husband feels it cooks as well as a gas stove with its ability to control the heat.

Cathy Crowley

There were AER program requirements as part of the building process. The Crowleys were required to bring in professional consultants such as a Home Energy Rating System (HERS) rater to evaluate the energy efficiency features. But the rater took over guidance and submitted information for them that was required for AER rebates. Cathy says that, out of all the things they went through, it was a fairly easy process.

“The best thing to come out of this is that I have just retired and I have a brand new house that shouldn’t have any maintenance costs for years to come. It has a forty-year roof, all new appliances. I was working with a financial advisor recently and she was trying to go over household costs. She kept telling me, ‘Your costs are too low. They have to be higher.’ I told her, ‘They’re not! I have solar power with battery backup for an all-electric house, and last year I received money back for the electricity I provided to the grid. So I have basically no expenses.’”

Cathy’s advice for others going through the enormous loss and process of putting their lives back together after a wildfire? Find people who have your same insurance company, because you are all going through the same thing. And network. If you don’t have time for networking and someone asks how they can help, put them in charge of networking on your behalf. That’s how you find out about resources, programs, and opportunities like Advanced Energy Rebuild.