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Homeowners Weigh Options for Wildfire Cleanup

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The remains of a home in Santa Rosa's Coffey Park. Homeowners and county officials struggle with debris cleanup.  (Sukey Lewis/KQED)

About a week and a half ago shouting broke out at a town hall meeting in Santa Rosa, as fire survivors’ frustration and confusion about what to do with the remains of their burned-out homes bubbled over.

Many displaced homeowners are struggling to find a place to sleep at night, dealing with trauma and trying to keep a job. Now they also face a huge decision that will affect their families and their ability to rebuild. That decision: to opt into the government-run debris removal program or opt out and hire their own private contractor to do the cleanup.

The wildfires in Northern California burned through buildings, trees, washing machines, refrigerators, beds and TVs -- leaving a giant hazardous mess in their wake. Cleaning up the mess is a massive project that could take months to complete and cost taxpayers upward of $180 million. And it is complicated by the potentially conflicting interests of the homeowners, insurers and government agencies involved.

To handle this unprecedented cleanup project, the state turned to the federal government for help. The debris removal program for Lake, Mendocino, Sonoma and Napa counties is being run by the Army Corps of Engineers and managed by ECC, a contractor. Costs not covered by insurance will be paid for by FEMA.

County leaders are anxious to maximize the resources offered by the federal government and get the cleanup underway as quickly as possible, not just because it’s the first step to recovery, but also because they are facing an environmental and public health crisis. Much of the debris left behind by the wildfires is toxic, and there are fears that heavy rains could spread the debris and pollute the groundwater.


“It [debris cleanup] has to happen, not because we want to rush but because we know the rains are coming and we have to be cognizant of that, so that is going to drive a lot of our decision-making,” Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore said at a Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday. “We are in a public health disaster.”

To this end, county and state leaders are urging homeowners to sign “Right of Entry” forms that give the Army Corps’ contractors permission to go on to their property and clean it up. But as of this past Tuesday, only about 800 people had signed on to the government program.

Homeowners Weigh Options for Wildfire Cleanup

Homeowners Weigh Options for Wildfire Cleanup

And the standards, timeline and process for opting out of the government program are still being worked out.

“Whichever way you go, we all have to meet the same standards in terms of that debris cleanup,” said Rick Brown, spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers. “With the Corps of Engineers and the government program there's no out-of-pocket costs to the homeowner, and that's probably the biggest thing to understand.”

Homeowners' insurance policies will often have a chunk of money set aside for debris removal. But if the cost of hiring a private contractor to do the cleanup exceeds what the policy covers, FEMA will not pick up the difference.

Still, some property owners are considering opting out of the government program.

One concern is the cost of a new foundation. The Army Corps’ contractors will automatically remove the foundations of all buildings destroyed by the fire. Based on its past experience with fires, Brown said, this makes sense.

“With fires of this intensity like what we saw here,” Brown explained, “those foundations, even if on the surface the foundations appear they didn't take any damage, the soil underneath may very well have taken in some toxins from the things in that ash footprint.”

Additionally, the Army Corps needs a process that is expedient for the large number of homes it has to deal with -- so it doesn’t make sense for them to test each foundation individually.

But homeowners may face a different calculus. While they may not have to pay any money upfront for foundation removal, after the foundation is gone the cost of rebuilding a home can be greatly increased. And insurance will not always cover foundation replacement.

State Farm Insurance claims representative Tim Foster said his company looks at each claim on an individual basis. The company doesn't advise customers on what to do.

“We just assess whether or not there is or isn’t damage present and whether or not the policy will cover that,” Foster said. “What the customer chooses to do from there is always up to them.”

Don Millerick, whose home in the Coffey Park neighborhood of Santa Rosa burned to the ground, said he still doesn't feel that he has enough information to make a decision. But he and other homeowners will soon be forced to decide.

In the coming weeks, county leaders will be setting deadlines to either opt in or opt out of the Army Corps program. To help people make that decision, Sonoma County will be holding more town hall meetings to gather and address the questions that homeowners have.

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