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FEMA bringing trailers, mobile homes to Sonoma County to house fire victims

FILE - In this Aug. 23, 2016, file photo, Mayor Andrea "Andy" Pendleton, right, hugs resident Linda Bennett in front of Bennett's new FEMA trailer installed in front of her flood ravaged home in Rainelle, W. Va. Just before Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas in August 2017 as a Category 4 hurricane and in the floods that ensued, the federal government was auctioning off used disaster-response trailers at fire-sale prices. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)

J.D. MORRIS,

One month after the most destructive wildfires in California history destroyed more than 5,000 Sonoma County homes, state and federal emergency officials are beginning the complicated task of moving displaced residents into government-sponsored travel trailers, mobile homes and other temporary living situations as the community sets its sights on long-term rebuilding.

In the short term, the Federal Emergency Management Agency plans to house fire victims in travel trailers at up to 80 spots in the Sonoma County Fairgrounds’ RV park in Santa Rosa. The county Board of Supervisors has authorized an additional 120 spots at the fairgrounds should the need arise.

At the same time, emergency officials are investigating whether they can put transitional housing on several other public sites around Santa Rosa and in the Sonoma Valley, and they’re prepared to deploy 1,000 trailers and mobile homes to house California fire victims. Officials say they can secure even more temporary living units if they’re needed.

“What we don’t want to do is just build a park or drop a bunch of units at a location, and then after you make the calls no one goes there,” said Ryan Buras, director for the national qualification system at FEMA. “Then you help no one. We’re making sure that we match the resource with the need.”

FEMA has already moved one travel trailer for a fire victim to the fairgrounds and hopes to bring an additional 24 there this week or next, according to Buras. The agency is ready to quickly secure as many as 500 trailers from around California to house residents displaced by the fires, he said.

Also, FEMA says it has more than 100 larger mobile homes in the state that workers can set up as soon as sites are ready for them.

About 400 more out-of-state mobile homes are on standby and can be here in less than a week, Buras said. Officials are still working to find the most appropriate sites for mobile homes, which are more difficult than trailers to install because of their larger size and the utilities required, he said.

In the aftermath of the fires that erupted Oct. 8 across Northern California, displacing tens of thousands of people, FEMA has received more than 15,200 registration forms from Sonoma County fire victims, of which more than 3,000 have been deemed eligible for some form of disaster assistance from the agency.

The agency’s housing assistance program mostly serves disaster victims who are uninsured or under-insured, and while it doesn’t have income-based eligibility requirements, participants tend to be moderate- or low-income people, officials said.

FEMA expects the number of eligible registrations to continue rising in the coming weeks, but not all of those families will need temporary government housing, officials said. Some will find new homes on their own, others will get transitional housing through their insurance company and still others could leave the area entirely.

For those who do seek a temporary home from the government, emergency officials consider a multitude of factors, including whether a site is close to the fire victim’s workplace, transportation options and other services. The size of the displaced family will help dictate what form their temporary home takes, whether that’s a trailer or a one-, two- or three-bedroom mobile unit.

“Obviously, each family is going to have different needs,” said Tina Curry, a deputy director at the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.

The government is also analyzing whether it can place fire victims temporarily in corporate-owned housing units typically reserved for employees, not the general public, according to Buras. And insurance companies are playing a large role, too, by reserving apartments for their clients, reducing the number of people who need FEMA housing, Buras said.

“Ideally, if we can find somebody that goes to corporate lodging or apartments, that would be our first choice,” Buras said. “But there was limited stock in this area pre-wildfire, so that’s why we bring in these other alternatives.”

At the fairgrounds site in Santa Rosa, the government can use half of the spaces at the RV park on Aston Avenue, according to Becky Bartling, CEO of the Sonoma County Fair. The additional 120 spots, if they’re needed, would go on the southeast side of the fairgrounds, she said.

The sites are well-suited to house fire victims, both because of their relatively central location in Santa Rosa and the fairgrounds’ existing infrastructure, Bartling said.

“We’re already in the RV park business, so that helps,” she said.

Other publicly owned locations under consideration for transitional housing include two sites at the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building property, two sites at the Los Guilicos juvenile hall complex off Highway 12 and the Sonoma Developmental Center, according to county officials.

You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or jd.morris@pressdemocrat.com.