The thousands of Sonoma County residents who lost their homes in last month’s wildfires have until Nov. 13 to authorize the government-funded cleanup of their properties or they’ll have to do it themselves, state and federal officials said Wednesday.
The deadline — less than two weeks away — was announced at a special meeting of the Santa Rosa City Council in an effort to motivate people to make up their minds about whether to participate in the massive cleanup effort.
“The sooner we receive right-of-entry forms from property owners who want to participate, the quicker property owners can begin the process of rebuilding,” City Manager Sean McGlynn said.
To date, despite a two-week-long public outreach campaign, the owners of just 918 properties have granted federally funded crews the right to remove debris from their leveled lots. That’s only about 17 percent of the 5,300 homes that were burned in the devastating Tubbs and Nuns fires, now the costliest blazes in U.S. history. The total number of structures destroyed, including 126 commercial buildings and 1,581 outbuildings, is just over 7,000.
Signing and submitting the forms will allow waste removal companies contracted by the state and federal governments to “safely and efficiently clean your properties of fire related debris and to clean the way for rebuilding,” McGlynn said.
The forms are available at sonomacountyrecovers.org or at a processing center at 625 Fifth St. in Santa Rosa, where completed forms must be returned.
McGlynn said it was “vital” that people turn in the forms by the end of business on the 13th.
The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors will be making a similar announcement Friday, he said.
The establishment of a deadline for the forms is crucial if the cleanup goal of early 2018 is going to be met, said Robert Pesapane, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Sonoma County division supervisor.
The Army Corps of Engineers needs to start getting to work, he said. It needs to know how many debris removal teams to hire and where to begin work first. It can’t do those things efficiently if there’s an open-ended process, he said.
“The more (right-of-entry forms) that we can get up front, the quicker the Corps, in a cost effective way, can remove the debris,” he said.
McGlynn stressed that the need to complete the forms has been made even more urgent by the impending arrival of the rainy season, which risks washing toxic ash into sensitive local waterways.
Local attorney Hans Herb said one reason so few people have signed the forms is that people still have a lot of questions about the process and the answers aren’t always clear or consistent. He said it was “not responsible” to set a deadline before people’s questions were answered.
“I would hate to see these people victimized twice because they make a bad decision on something because they don’t have accurate information,” Herb said.
Others said people had concerns that crews would damage septic systems or pools, or would remove foundations unnecessarily.
Paul Lowenthal, the city’s assistant fire marshal, who lost his Larkfield home, said there is no doubt his foundation is unbuildable, but some of his neighbors are still questioning whether the foundation removals are necessary, he said.
Council members wanted assurance that public outreach effort was robust, suggesting that every property owner be contacted directly.
Councilman Tom Schwedhelm said he wanted to make sure people didn’t later claim they didn’t know about the deadline.
But asked by Schwedhelm what happens if someone walks in with the form on Nov. 14, Pesapane hedged.
It would depend on where the property was located relative to the cleanup effort, he said. If the property, for example, was in Coffey Park and the cleanup teams had already moved on to other areas, “more than likely we may not come back to pick up the extra parcels.”
But if adding the site made sense logistically, then “if we can, we will,” he said.
You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @srcitybeat.