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The Long Road to Recovery: Six Months After the Sonoma and Napa Wildfires

This week marks the six-month anniversary since wildfires ravaged Sonoma and Napa counties. Federal agencies are nearing the end of intense clean-up efforts, and residents and business owners are returning to their properties to evaluate rebuilding. Slowly but surely, the region is climbing its way out from disaster and onto the long road to recovery.

The resilience of nature is also on display, with burn zones filling up with new grasses, shrubbery, and even rare wildflowers sprouting up across regional and state parks. Lower than average rainfall in the months of December through March have (so far) avoided major flooding and erosion events.

Planet has been monitoring the Sonoma and Napa fire zones over the past six months using false-color near-infrared imagery. Below you’ll find wide-area mosaics, built from daily PlanetScope imagery, that compare immediately after the Tubbs, Atlas, and Nuns wildfires to present day.

In false color near-infrared imagery, the satellite assigns the infrared band, normally invisible to the naked eye, to show up as red in color. This technique is valuable for understanding the health of vegetation and mapping the extent of a fire. Because plants reflect infrared light strongly, in a false-color image, vegetation appears red in color. Plants that are healthy appear bright red, while stressed plants appear more pink and greyish. Darker red shows dense plant life.

This video shows a week-by-week timelapse of how the region’s vegetation has returned over the past six months.

In the first months of 2017, record-setting rainfall led to increased vegetation in Sonoma and Napa counties. By the summer, however, much of the vegetation had dried out and built up into a large fuel source for the October wildfires. After the fires, December’s lighter-than-average rainfall allowed crews to prepare scorched hillsides and vulnerable creek areas for future rainfall, including protecting streams from runoff and heading off mudslides. It also encouraged the regrowth of vegetation through the early parts of 2018.

The regrowth of the natural environment is only one aspect of the story. The recovery of the built environment is another. The four major wildfires across Sonoma and Napa counties last October destroyed at least 8,400 homes and buildings overall. We tasked SkySat satellites to get a better understanding of how clean-up and rebuilding efforts are progressing in some of the hardest hit areas of the Tubbs Fire.

Mark West Springs Road and Old Redwood Highway, Santa Rosa, March 27. Image ©2018 Planet Labs, Inc. cc-by-sa 4.0.

While some residents and business owners are just beginning the work of rebuilding, others are contemplating leaving for good. As reported by The Press Democrat, in the past four months, residents and business owners have put 300 burned lots on the market. In many cases, people are finding that insurance settlements aren’t enough to rebuild their homes and properties, especially given the region’s high labor and materials costs, leaving lots standing empty.

Fountaingrove neighborhood, Santa Rosa, March 4. Image ©2018 Planet Labs, Inc. cc-by-sa 4.0.

Nevertheless, Sonoma County officials have proposed building 30,000 more homes over the next five years — a construction pace seven times greater than the number of home starts over past five years. High-resolution satellite imagery can help us detect change and derive insights on the pace and progress of rebuilding across different counties.

Coffey Park neighborhood, Santa Rosa, April 8. Image ©2018 Planet Labs, Inc. cc-by-sa 4.0.

Disasters like the Sonoma and Napa wildfires have many phases, from “pre-event” to “post-event.” The “post-event” phase for Sonoma and Napa counties may last for the next decade. Pairing weekly analytic mosaics with high-resolution SkySat imagery can offer a more nuanced account of recovery and resilience efforts happening in the North Bay.

Learn more about how Planet supports all aspects of emergency and disaster management here.

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Using space imagery to tell stories about our changing planet.

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