HIDDEN VALLEY LAKE — At a campground on the outskirts of this rural Lake County subdivision, people forced into a nomadic lifestyle when the massive Valley fire consumed their homes are reluctantly preparing to relocate once again.
The campground — bordered by streams — is prone to flooding and is scheduled to close Monday for safety reasons, according to Hidden Valley Lake Association officials. The association, which owns the facility, has provided free camping, showers and bathrooms to scores of fire evacuees since the Valley fire raged through 76,067 acres in southern Lake County, destroying nearly 1,300 homes and 27 multi-unit complexes. The blaze displaced thousands of residents.
“We’re very concerned about the health and safety issues,” said Charles Russ, director of operations for the homeowners association.
Most of the campground tenants have been living in trailers, some borrowed, some purchased with loans or money from Federal Emergency Management Agency grants. Some previously homeless people, mostly living there in tents, also have been staying at the campsite.
The campground residents have been offered other options and roughly half already have moved, according to county officials.
Rozio Madrigal and her family recently joined about 50 other families living in one-bedroom suites and apartments at the formerly shuttered Konocti Harbor resort, which was reopened to accommodate people displaced by the fire. The resort has a contract with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide housing. It means a longer commute for Madrigal to take her children to school in Middletown, but, unlike her trailer, it’s warm and dry, she said. And unlike area rents, which reportedly have climbed dramatically since the fire, the price is right.
But not everyone has the same housing options, and still other fire refugees have rejected the options they have been offered.
“For various reasons, they’re choosing to stay (at the campground),” said Carol Hutchingson, the county’s long-term recovery coordinator and director of Social Services. The county’s recovery website lists a number of other RV parks in the county, but they all have fees ranging from $10 a night to $35 a night, and many of the evacuees are trying to save as much as they can to help rebuild their lives.
The situation is particularly problematic for former homeowners who were uninsured and who received maximum FEMA grants — $32,900. The lump-sum payment makes them ineligible for any additional rental assistance, including camping fees.
FEMA has reported disbursing $6.4 million — $3.4 million of it for housing — so far to Lake County residents, Hutchingson said. FEMA reported late last month that 552 families were receiving rental assistance. Of those, 99 were homeowners, she said. About 100 FEMA modular homes also are expected to be loaned to displaced residents.
Homeowners will be able to place trailers or modular homes on their properties, but only after the sites are cleared of debris — toxic and otherwise — and have power and septic systems inspected and approved.
The process is cumbersome, taking a lot more energy, paperwork and time than displaced former homeowner Stephan Wasik, 61, ever imagined.
“I’d say it was a full-time job,” he said. “We hoped our property would be cleared” by now.
Instead, he and his wife, Pam, were making arrangements Friday to temporarily move their 2007 travel trailer — purchased with their FEMA grant — to property owned by some friends.