Victims of the destructive wildfires that wrought widespread havoc on Northern California last month have two more weeks to apply for federal disaster assistance, a step thousands of people have already taken and one that local officials still encourage remaining fire survivors to move forward with, regardless of how much insurance they may have.
By Dec. 11, more than two months after California’s most destructive firestorm swept through Sonoma County, victims must register with the Federal Emergency Management Agency if they are to remain eligible for direct financial assistance and other forms of governmental aid down the road. FEMA is also encouraging fire victims who have received applications for disaster loans provided by the U.S. Small Business Administration to submit them by the same deadline.
FEMA wants all local victims impacted by the wildfires to register online, over the phone or in person — even if they’re not sure they’ll need a federal grant or loan — so the option is available to them if needed.
“We encourage everyone to register, because it is an assistance that is available to help you recover from the disaster, and we want you to receive all of the things that you’re eligible for so that you can recover faster,” said Brandi Richard, a FEMA public affairs officer. “We’re just trying to get people whole, or as whole as they possibly can be.”
So far, the federal government has received more than 15,800 valid registrations related to the October wildfires in Sonoma County, and nearly 3,200 of those have been approved, according to Richard. The agency has approved about $7.5 million to assist individual fire victims in the county, she said.
It’s not clear how many people remain eligible for disaster assistance who haven’t signed up yet.
“If you were just looking at the number of households that were impacted, meaning their home was damaged or destroyed, you would think that there would be a set number, but it’s anyone who’s had any impact,” Richard said. “So that could be that part of their personal property was in one of those houses, or someone close to them passed away or their car was in a place that was burned so they need a place for their vehicle. There are lots of different ways and reasons why people would apply for assistance from FEMA.”
Sonoma County Board of Supervisors chairwoman Shirlee Zane urged all remaining fire victims to register quickly, if they haven’t already, before the deadline passes.
“We pay for this type of assistance out of our taxes,” Zane said. “But we still have to take advantage of those opportunities. We want to pump money back into our economy, too, and we want people to get back on their feet first and foremost.”
The federal government is still operating two disaster recovery centers: the primary one in Santa Rosa on the first floor of The Press Democrat building at 427 Mendocino Avenue and another in the Sonoma Valley at the Hanna Boys Center at 17000 Arnold Drive. When the Santa Rosa location operated as a more expansive local assistance center, it served more than 12,500 households through Nov. 11, and about 1,400 have been served since then, according to Michael Gossman, a Sonoma County Water Agency official who managed the site and is still coordinating with the county and FEMA.
Hart family timeline: Where was the family before the deadly Mendocino Coast crash?
The unfolding story of Jen and Sarah Hart, both 38, and their six adoptive children has captured national attention, and revealed public and personal lives at odds with one another — a public image of a functioning, modern family and a private history of interactions with Child Protective Services in Minnesota and the Pacific Northwest.
Here’s what’s known about the Hart family’s actions before its deadly plunge last month from a coastal Highway 1 cliff.
May 23, 2005: Sarah Margaret Gengler, then 26, petitions to change her name to Sarah Margaret Hart, taking the surname of her wife Jen Hart. The two met in college at Northern State University in Aberdeen, South Dakota.
September 2006: Siblings Markis, Abigail and Hannah are adopted from Colorado County, Texas.
February 2009: Jen and Sarah Hart adopt another set of siblings from southeast Texas, this time from Harris County: Devonte, Jeremiah and Sierra.
Sept. 8, 2009: Markis, Abigail, Jeremiah, Devonte and Hannah are enrolled in Alexandria, Minnesota, public schools, ranging from kindergarten to sixth grade.
Sept. 7, 2010: Sierra Hart joins her siblings as a kindergartener in the public school system.
Nov. 15, 2010: A report is filed with the Alexandria Police Department, in which Abigail Hart, then in first grade, told her teacher and detectives that Jen Hart put her head under cold water, bent her over the bathtub and hit her with a closed fist, resulting in “owies” to her abdomen and back. Abigail Hart told authorities the discipline was because she found a penny at school and had it in her pocket. When authorities interviewed Sarah Hart about the incident, she said it was her that had delivered the punishment, not Jen Hart, and that 6-year-old Abigail Hart likely said it was Jen Hart because she was mad at her.
Dec. 27, 2010: Sarah Hart is charged with domestic assault and malicious punishment of a child.
April 7, 2011: Sarah Hart pleads guilty to assault, and the malicious punishment of a child charge is dropped.
April 14, 2011: Sarah Hart reaches a probation agreement.
April 15, 2011: All six children are pulled from Alexandria Public Schools and placed in a home school setting.
July 18, 2013: Now residents of West Linn, Oregon, the West Linn Police Department files a report involving the Hart family and refers the case to the Oregon Department of Human Services, which handles child protective services cases. Details of what that report includes are not publicly available.
Nov. 25, 2014: A photograph of Devonte Hart, then 12, hugging a white police officer at a Portland protest, tears streaming down his face, goes viral.
March 20, 2016: The family is photographed onstage at a campaign rally for U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders in Vancouver, Washington.
May 5, 2017: The Hart family buys a home in Woodland, Washington. Friends say the move was a result of unwanted media attention after the photo of Devonte Hart went viral.
March 23, 2018: A social worker for the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services attempts to make contact with the family, after a neighbor files a complaint alleging the children were potential victims of abuse or neglect.
March 24, 2018: Cellphone pings indicate the family was in the area of Newport, Oregon about 8:05 a.m.
March 24, 2018: The Harts reach Fort Bragg about 8 p.m.
March 25, 2018: A man is believed to have spotted the Hart family at a knick-knack shop along the highway near Fort Bragg, about 20 miles south of their eventual crash site. Authorities believe they left Fort Bragg at 9 p.m.
March 26, 2018: The Washington State Department of Social and Health Services again attempts to contact the family at its home in Woodside, Washington.
March 26, 2018: The family’s wrecked SUV is spotted by a passing motorist at the bottom of a cliff below a Highway 1 turnout, north of Westport.
March 27, 2018: A third attempt is made to contact the family in Washington.
March 27, 2018: Police identify Jennifer, Sarah, Markis, Jeremiah and Abigail Hart as victims in the crash. Devonte, Hannah and Sierra Hart are still missing.
Source: Compiled from government and court records, and personal interviews with friends, family and police.