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Sonoma County Board of Supervisors sets deadlines for wildfire victims to join debris removal programs

Santa Rosa firefighter Tony Niel and his son Jordon, 13, sift through the debris of their home in Larkfield, Wednesday Oct. 18, 2017. Niel and his family evacuated from their home as the Tubbs fire bore down on their neighborhood last week. After making sure his children and wife were safe, Niel headed in to work to help fight the fires in Coffey Park. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2017

J.D. MORRIS,

Sonoma County residents who lost their homes in the North Bay wildfires last month have a little more than one week left to sign up for the government-sponsored cleanup program, or about 2½ weeks if they want to apply to use a private contractor instead.

Fire victims must submit right-of-entry forms by Nov. 13 in order to allow contractors with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to remove the debris of their destroyed homes. Homeowners who decide to opt out of the government effort have until Nov. 22 to submit an application and work plan for the alternate program, which allows private contractors to remove the remnants of their charred homes instead.

The deadlines were approved Friday afternoon by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, which convened a special meeting to set the time frame as quickly as possible.

Supervisors also agreed at the meeting to allow transitional housing units provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds. The federal government will lease 80 existing RV spots at the fairgrounds and officials have authorization from supervisors to add 120 more spaces as well.

But for homeowners, debris removal has remained one of the most pressing — and confusing — concerns, and it was the main focus of supervisors on Friday.

Some residents have objected to the quickly approaching deadline to join the government’s debris removal program, asking for more time to consider whether it’s the best option for them.

Emergency officials, however, have maintained Nov. 13 is the latest date they can reasonably allow.

“We need to operate efficiently — we need to maximize our time and resources to eliminate the public health threat and minimize the cost to taxpayers,” said Eric Lamoureux, a regional administrator for the state Office of Emergency Services. “The Nov. 13 date, we believe, is the appropriate date. ... A delay is going to continue that threat, is going to increase our program costs.”

Attempting to push the deadline back would jeopardize the government’s ability to finish its fire debris cleanup by early next year — and the county’s ability to begin rebuilding in earnest then, Lamoureux warned supervisors.

As of Friday afternoon, nearly 1,500 right-of-entry forms were submitted. County officials estimate more than 4,000 additional homeowners still need to register for debris cleanup, according to Christine Sosko, the county’s environmental health director. County officials had been receiving about 100 forms per day, but the pace recently accelerated to about 200 each day, Sosko said.

By setting clear deadlines Friday, county officials hoped to encourage the remaining fire victims who lost their homes to quickly choose one program or the other.

“It’s not about one or two people — it’s about the public health,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane, the board chairwoman. “It’s important to keep that framed.”

The public debris removal program is designed to come at no out-of-pocket cost to fire victims.

If a homeowner had insurance specifically for debris removal, the government will collect reimbursement from the insurance company so other taxpayers aren’t subsidizing a benefit that’s already covered, according to county and state officials. But the reimbursement amount won’t exceed the actual cost of clearing debris on the homeowner’s property, and if removal costs more than what the insurance covered, the homeowner will not be charged for the remainder.

Additionally, if debris cleanup is not a separate category in a resident’s insurance, the government will only collect from unused benefits after the homeowner rebuilds. If there’s nothing left, residents aren’t on the hook for anything, according to the county.

And even if residents didn’t have insurance, they can participate in the government cleanup for free.

“If you do not do this program, you are turning down an additional insurance coverage, and you are also choosing to manage the complexity yourself,” Supervisor James Gore said.

Still, some residents wanted the county to give them more time to consider the best choice for their property.

“I get the idea of a deadline, but I’m just thinking perhaps another week might be helpful,” said local resident Richard Rudnansky, whose home in the Bennett Ridge area outside Santa Rosa burned in the fires. “I would ask that you consider even a minor increase in the timeline.”

Gore was sympathetic toward a possible deadline extension later on — but only in the face of some kind of systemic issue making it infeasible for fire victims to make a practical decision in time, he said.

County and city officials are hosting a “debris removal resource fair” — a kind of work session of sorts for fire victims to get their cleanup paperwork in order — on Monday from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Hall at 1351 Maple Ave.