By Sudhin Thanawala and Paul Elias

Associated Press

SANTA ROSA, Calif. — Even before fire wiped out the home she rented for 17 years, Suzanne Finzell had thought about leaving this city on the edge of the San Francisco Bay Area because of rising prices. A spike in housing and other living costs had driven her friends to Nevada and Oregon.

Now, Finzell wonders if that will be her fate too, as the wildfires that charred California wine country send thousands of people who lost their homes scrambling for new places to live in one of the nation’s tightest and most expensive housing markets.

Before the fires, the rental vacancy rate was a mere 1 percent in Santa Rosa and 3 percent in surrounding Sonoma County. Then the city lost an estimated 5 percent of its housing stock to the flames.

“We had a housing crisis before the fires,” Mayor Chris Coursey said Wednesday. “It’s magnitudes worse now.”

Meanwhile, authorities reported more progress against the flames. The deputy chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said crews had stopped the movement of all fires.

Firefighters were helped by cooler weather and the lack of wind. Forecasters expect a tenth of an inch of rain in the affected areas on Thursday — not enough to quench any fires outright but still welcome.

The fires that swept through parts of seven counties were the deadliest and most destructive series of blazes in California history. At least 42 people died and 6,000 homes were lost.

The flames were especially devastating in Sonoma and Napa counties on the northern edge of the Bay Area — a region that has seen housing prices skyrocket in recent years amid a technology industry boom. In San Francisco, an average one-bedroom apartment rents for more than $3,000 a month, and the median home price is about $1.5 million.

Cities such as Santa Rosa, about 50 miles north of San Francisco, have offered more affordable housing for people willing to endure a longer commute. But that may not be the case anymore.

The 62-year-old Finzell, who has lived in Santa Rosa since she was 3, said the housing situation means her generation “heads into retirement with no chance of living in the places we grew up.”

Housing for displaced families is “going to be a really big challenge,” said Ana Lugo, president of the North Bay Organizing Project, an organization that advocates for affordable housing in Sonoma County.

Lugo said government officials are still focused on putting out the fires and “repopulating” evacuated neighborhoods. But she said the affordable housing issue will need to be addressed, including preventing price gouging.

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