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Cleanup from Sonoma County fires starts Wednesday; homeowners wary of free government program

Willie Rietman looks for keepsakes from his burned home on Ursuline Road in the Larkfield area, Monday Oct. 23, 2017 as he begin the arduous task of clean up an debris removal. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2017

GUY KOVNER,

Cleanup from the most destructive wildfire in state history will start Wednesday in Sonoma County amid a cloud of uncertainty — tinged with hostility — over exactly how it will impact the owners of an estimated 6,700 homes lost in the conflagration.

At a noisy press conference Monday, officials with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Army Corps of Engineers, Governor’s Office of Emergency Services and others announced the start of a cleanup they said will last until early next year.

Work will start with a “toxic sweep” managed by the EPA that will identify and remove hazardous material from all burned residential properties in the wake of a local health emergency declared last week by the county Board of Supervisors.

Eric Lamoureux, an OES regional administrator, said the sweep will start Wednesday, followed immediately by a full cleanup of burned property conducted by the Corps of Engineers. Homeowners must sign and submit a detailed right-of-entry form to qualify for that program, a requirement generating angst among anxious homeowners.

“We are not going to charge for this cleanup,” Lamoureux told a crowd of several hundred people in the lobby of the Rattigan State Building on D Street, where an official press conference turned into an impromptu community meeting.

The permit form states that homeowners must assign to the county “any and all insurance proceeds” they would be entitled to for removal of debris from their property. The county will also collect any insurance payments left over after rebuilding, an assessment Lamoureux said “is not going to affect your ability to rebuild.” No liens will be placed on property as a result of the cleanup, he said.

Right-of-entry forms and assistance filling them out will be available starting Wednesday morning at the county Public Health office at 625 Fifth St., Santa Rosa. Homeowners should bring identification for all persons named on the property title along with a copy of their insurance policy.

A process for opting out of the government-sponsored cleanup has not been determined, said Shirlee Zane, the Board of Supervisors chairwoman.

Zane cautioned people about taking up offers from private parties to do cleanup work for $15 an hour, while Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey encouraged homeowners to “join the process.” But unease is rampant among homeowners facing a choice between the government program and going it alone, applying insurance payments or personal resources to the cost of hiring a contractor.

“There’s conflicting stuff out there,” Willie Rietman, a Larkfield resident who lost his home in the firestorm, said in an interview Monday. “We all have to rebuild. We’re just looking for ways to save as much money as possible.”

Damian Clapton, who lost his home in Coffey Park, is one of the 2,907 Santa Rosa residents left in a ruined landscape and a clouded future. An additional 3,800 homes were lost in the county’s unincorporated areas.

“It’s really murky,” Clapton said. “They need to make this crystal clear.”

The government cleanup “seems like it’s being sold as a panacea for the county but not necessarily for each individual homeowner,” he said.

At the press conference, a man angrily challenged the announcement that the Corps of Engineers’ cleanup would include removal of concrete foundations. “We have determined foundations (burned in wildfires) are not safe for rebuilding,” Lamoureux said.

The man, red in the face, said he would be left “with a hole in the ground.”

Lamoureux said that people who opt out of the government cleanup can choose to leave their foundations in place.

During the cleanup from Lake County’s massive wildfires, contractors hired by government agencies tore out foundations, adding to the cost of rebuilding, said Tom Lynch, a Guerneville contractor.

“I’m recommending everybody to opt out of the agreement,” he said in an interview last week.

Lake County Supervisor Rob Brown said the government-sponsored cleanup worked well in the wake of the devastating Valley fire, which destroyed 1,278 homes in 2015.

“In our experience it’s the best way to get the job done,” he said.

Brown suggested homeowners sign the right-of-entry form now and opt out if they subsequently determine to handle cleanup themselves. It will likely be difficult to find contractors to handle the work privately, he said.

There were “isolated incidents” of contractors under the government program damaging foundations and septic systems in Lake County, Brown said.

State Farm advises policyholders to talk with their claims representative to determine how much coverage they have for debris removal and get several estimates from contractors before deciding which way to go.

“Your situation may be different from your neighbor’s,” said Angie Harrier, a spokeswoman for State Farm, which covers one in five California homes.

Rietman said he met with an insurance claims adjuster at his homesite Sunday and plans to discuss options with his insurance carrier in the next few days. People are wary about granting the right of entry, Clapton said.

“I’d love to get this debris removal started tomorrow,” he said. “I still have a lot of questions.”

A public meeting on the cleanup program will be from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday in the south gymnasium at Santa Rosa High School, 1235 Mendocino Ave.