Rebuilding from the Ashes

Photo by  Thomas Ehling  on  Unsplash


California has experienced the most devastating fires in memory.  I recall the Old Fire in San Bernardino County and the Cedar Fire in San Diego County in 2003.  Combined they burned over 360,000 acres and destroyed hundreds of homes.  This is minimal damage to the fires in Santa Rosa in 2017 where nearly 5000 homes were destroyed.  

During the Old Fire and Cedar fire I wore two hats.  The first was as a chaplain with Cal Fire serving the firefighters.  I am trained in Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) counseling to help crews deal with extreme situations.  The second was a as a Building Designer preparing plans for many who had lost their homes in the fire. These have provide a unique perspective. 

Insurance Company

Your insurance company will communicate what they will pay for rebuilding your home.  This will be an important factor when you evaluate construction costs and potential upgrade of your home.

    1. Call and inform your insurance company as soon as you confirm your home was damaged or destroyed as it will take them time to arrange for an agent.

    2. Your insurance policy coverage is always online these days so you can access that since your filed policy may not be ashes.  So be informed and review your policy. 

    3. If you have not created a list of household items you can still do so and collect any photos of the interior and exterior of your home you may have on your phone or on a internet site.


In these circumstances a city or county building department will respond to assist you but here is a list of items and requirements that will assist you get started in rebuilding your home. The process can be at times confusing, time consuming and downright overwhelming for you if you had never gone through any home building project.  So this paper is to give you some direction and educate you of the possible process you may encounter with the rebuilding of your home.  The following list is in order of importance and what I believe is the best order to proceed.

    1. Property Salvage

      1. Once you are allowed to return to your property you will then be allowed to look through the debris for what can be salvageable.  It can not be emphasized enough that you were appropriate gloves, dispensable overalls and masks to prevent the inhaling of toxic substances in the building destroyed materials and furnishings.  

      2. They are plenty of materials that can cause harm to you physically.  So it is well advised to insure your tenants shot is up to date as any cuts or pictures of your skin could result in infection.  

    2. Property Clean-up - You may have these options:

      1. Participate in a government-run debris removal program, which requires signing a right-of-entry form; 

        1. Utilizing a government-run debris removal program will result in no initial out-of-pocket expenses for homeowners, whereas using a private contractor will result in large expense, which may be completely or partially covered by homeowners’ insurance policies. 

        2. Government-run debris removal programs often utilize a two-phase approach (for an example

      2. Hire a private contractor for debris removal

        1. Costs will be out of pocket or reimbursed by your insurance company.  The contractor will need to be certified for asbestus or hazardous material clean-up if your house is of a considerable age.

      3. Conduct debris cleanup yourself. This is not advised unless minor damage.  Building materials contain a number of toxic substances and your handling of such materials could be detrimental to your health.

    3. Government-Run Clean-up phases

      1. Phase I removes household hazardous waste that may pose a threat to human health (e.g., batteries, asbestos siding, paints).  Phase I is required for all residential properties participating in the program.

      2. Phase II removes debris and conducts property clean-up work. This includes removal of all burnt debris, foundations, hazardous trees, and contaminated soil to ensure the site is safe for building. Participation in the government run debris removal program is encouraged but optional. 

        1. Government-run debris removal programs strive to get the work completed quickly, reducing impacts from fall storm events to surface water and groundwater resources.

        2. Use of government-run programs and private contractors prevent homeowners from being exposed to toxic materials during the debris removal process. 

        3. It is likely that work done by a private contractor or the homeowner will be required to meet or exceed the standards set by local, state and federal agencies.

        4. Phase II of the government-run debris removal program generally includes removal of the house’s foundation. 

Rebuilding Plan Process

So you decided to repair your damaged home or rebuild if your home was completely destroyed.  Where do you start?  Here is a list of guidelines to assist you in the right direction.

    1. Decide before hand whether you intend to rebuild your home exactly on the same footprint as it was.  If so this will typically expedite the plan review process for you so you get your home started as soon as possible. 

    2. Choosing an Architect or Building Designer.  

      1. What is the difference Difference between an Architect and a Building Designer.  See my article, BUILDING DESIGNER VS. ARCHITECT,  on this comparison.  

      2. Referrals are one of the best ways to find the right professional. Referrals can come from acquaintances who have used a professional.  If there is no referral I suggest searching using  This is a website devoted to residential design and remodeling that will have information on local professionals with some samples of their work and reviews by clients.  

        1. I do not suggest hiring a family member or friend that promises a favor.  Though they mean well this option can cost you time as you wait for them to fit your project in around their paid customers. 

        2. Potential fees can vary.  Refer to my article, “….” to explain how fees may be calculated.  Your first meeting should be without charge.  

      3. In your first meeting with a design professional come prepared with the following as this will help them understand the scope of the project.:

        1. A list of needs and wants

        2. Sketches of the home that was damaged or destroyed.

        3. Photos, if available.   

        4. Your Home Insurance commitment for replacement of your home to establish a budget.  Expect that the professional’s fees may at first be out of pocket costs to you that can be reimbursed by your insurance company.

        5. The professional will present a written agreement that defines the work they will and will not perform with a description of the process and break-down of payments.  

    3. Other professional services may be required and include: Soils engineer to evaluate the condition of the soil for structural evaluation, Septic certification if not on sewer, civil engineer or surveyor if a grading plan is required and possibly a landscape architect if your home is within a Community Association.  

      1. Also, if with a Community Association you may also be required to submit your design to a review committee.  

Your Building Department 

Once plans and appropriate documents are prepared you are ready to submit to the city or county plan check for review.  This process is typically 4 weeks or 20 working days to process.  However, in major fire incidents as a wildfire they will often place a priority on such submittals and even hire outside firms to expedite the process for you.

Once a permit has been issued then you are ready to break ground.  But during this process is when you want to be acquiring bids from at least three (3) licensed General Contractors.  I do not suggest attempting to same money and build the hime yourself unless you have extensive construction back-ground.  For choosing a contractor refer to my article Selecting a Contractor.