How to Rebuild After a Fire: Finding Opportunities for Improved Health and Happiness


For many living in California, the past few months have been a scary and challenging time. Earthquakes are the most famous of the natural disasters that afflict California, but this past season’s deadly wildfires and mudslides have taken a startling amount of lives and homes. Many of our dear friends have been forced to evacuate their houses, not knowing when they would be able to return or what state their household would be in when they arrived back.

“It has always been a part of living in California, being close to nature and all its possibilities. Many families are going through the process of rebuilding their homes and their lives now that the fires are out,” said Sarah Barnard, a WELL AP, LEED AP, and interior designer who specializes in health, wellness and sustaining happiness at home.


Much of California seemed to be fraught with wildfires last year. Cities like Santa Barbara and Montecito have been hit especially hard. A deadly mudslide rampaged through large areas of northern Los Angeles County and Santa Barbara County early last year, not long after 2017’s deadly wildfire. Butte County, near San Francisco, faced the deadliest wildfire in California history, one that covered 153,336 acres, killing 87 and destroying 13,972 homes.

Losing a home, whether due to a natural disaster like a wildfire or by something more common like black mold, is extremely stressful and emotionally draining. It is possible to recover. Consider this list of short term and long term goals that can help you rebuild your sanctuary and feel happier and stronger than ever.

We don’t even know how strong we are until we are forced to bring that hidden strength forward. In times of tragedy, of war, of necessity, people do amazing things. The human capacity for survival and renewal is awesome.
— Isabel Allende, feminist journalist, writer and humanitarian

#1: Short Term

You may face a seemingly endless amount of tedious tasks that feel at odds with your surreal circumstances. Take care of things one at a time, as they come up. Remember to allow yourself regular mental health breaks from working to restore order. Focus first on the most critical tasks:report the incident to your insurance company

  • continue paying your mortgage

  • wait until the fire department and the police clear you to return home before you enter

  • secure your property from looters

Emotionally, you will need the support of family, friends, and the community. There are typically community programs to help you in a crisis, so allow yourself to lean on them when you can.


Allow yourself to grieve and make time for self-care. You will need to talk about what happened, rest, eat well, and practice stress relief through meditation, regular exercise, deep breathing, or any other method that works for you.

Most important, you should allow yourself to feel joy when you can. Be with your loved ones and relish anything that brings you happiness. Just because you are experiencing loss, don’t be afraid of being happy when good things happen to you. Visiting public gardens or parks while you are rebuilding your new living situation will allow you to connect with restorative outdoor spaces. Here are a few places to visit and recharge:


Los Angeles

Descanso Gardens - This garden, nestled in La Canada, allows guests year round, and features renowned botanical collections and peaceful, meandering walking paths.

Getty Center - The Getty Center features an extensive art collection, modern architecture, and manicured gardens all in one location with a breathtaking view of the city.

Huntington Gardens - The Huntington Library features an art collection, restaurant, and large grounds with more than 15 gardens with their own curated botanical collections.

Santa Barbara County

Lotusland - Once a private residence, Lotusland is one of the most unique private gardens in the world, with a huge variety of plant species and beautiful flowers.

Santa Barbara Botanic Garden - The Santa Barbara Botanic Garden features extensive gardens and guided tours exploring California’s native plants and their uses.

San Francisco

San Francisco Botanical Garden - This large garden is perfect for meditation, tours, classes, and family outings. A collection of plants from around the world are featured here.

Conservatory of Flowers - This garden's motto is, “Connecting people and plants in a place of exceptional beauty.” Tours, exhibits, and a plethora of tropical and aquatic plants provides a beautiful and natural space to recuperate.

Regional Parks Botanic Garden - This park provides a haven for redwood trees and other endangered plants, with winding trails and a backdrop of stunning landscapes. Fans of California scenery will find plenty to admire here.

I think when tragedy occurs, it presents a choice. You can give in to the void: the emptiness that fills your heart, your lungs, constricts your ability to think or even breathe. Or you can try to find meaning.
— Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook

#2: Long Term

You have the opportunity to begin again, so take the time to figure out what you value most. Make long term plans to achieve this while continuing mental and emotional health practices, like spending time with family and close friends, meditation, exercising, taking walks, and journaling.

Consider your ideal situation. What would make you feel happy and healthy? How do you want to live? What brings you comfort, joy, and peace of mind? What did you always want to improve but didn’t have the time or opportunity to fix?


One question to start with: Are there things you wish to keep but are now damaged? Professional artisans and art conservators can bring some treasured pieces back to life. Sarah Barnard, a Los Angeles native, remembers a client who had a chair restored after a mudslide years ago. “It was an antique piece that had been passed down in her family. Out of necessity, the fabric and the chair, ruined in the incident, were stripped to the frame. We ordered a custom textile, matched to photos of the original chair. When it complete, the piece was like new, and it now sits prominently in her home.”


Restoration can also save fine art and furniture that has been damaged by fires, mold, and earthquakes. Another of Barnard’s clients had a favorite table bought by her and her partner as newlyweds that were mostly intact after an earthquake, and only one side was damaged. An artisan was able to match the wood and finish, hand-carving a new foot to perfectly match. Barnard’s restoration of a beloved piece of furniture was a cathartic step, and very meaningful to her client’s recovery.


When the time comes to rebuild, you can create your best life in your new home. Consider opportunities to experience more pleasure, beauty, and happiness in daily life. “Plants will bring the natural world into your space and can help provide clean air, to a space you restored,” says Barnard. Incorporating biophilia and healthy and organic materials, paying attention to the air quality of your home, and creating a serene, personal space are all ways of increasing your health and happiness.

Our capacity for growth and emotional recovery is limitless. Knowing that we all need support in a time of crisis, you should not go it alone. Consider seeking the help of a compassionate and conscious designer that has experience in assisting families with special needs. Use your support network to rebuild and find healthy living and happiness. A tragedy like losing your home can be the catalyst for a journey to a healthier, more conscious life.


Sarah Barnard designs healthy, happy, personalized spaces that are deeply connected to nature and art.

To learn more about Sarah Barnard Design, please visit

Photos by Steven Dewall, Scott Van Dyke, Brad Nichol

Disclaimer: Information on this site is provided for general informational, inspirational and educational purposes only and is not a substitute for architectural, engineering, psychological, legal or any other kind of professional advice. Neither the writer, nor Sarah Barnard, her associates or affiliates shall be liable for any physical, emotional, financial, and/or commercial damages, including but not limited to special, incidental, consequential or any other damages. You are responsible for your own choices, actions and outcomes.

Copyright 2018 Sarah Barnard Design. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, and/or transmitted in any form without the prior written consent of Sarah Barnard Design, except in the case of brief quotations as permitted by copyright law. For permission requests please write to