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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

Approximately 79 percent of all eligible Sonoma County residents signed up for a government-operated effort to remove debris from their fire-ravaged homes as the deadline for joining the program ended Monday night.

Officials expect the total will surpass the 80 percent threshold as last-minute filers turned in their “right of entry” forms, which allow contractors hired by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to clean up their property in the aftermath of last month’s devastating wildfires, said Christine Sosko, the county’s environmental health director.

As of 2 p.m. Monday, the county had received 4,036 applications out of the approximately 5,130 residences destroyed by the Tubbs, Nuns and Pocket fires.

Officials had approved 2,889 of those filings, but some applications required additional documentation before they could be fully processed.

“There has definitely been a pickup of people signing up for the program in the last few days,” Sosko said.

Local officials are still unsure how many fire victims will participate in the program, which they touted as the easiest, quickest and least expensive way to clear damaged property. Federal officials noted that other disasters have had acceptance rates of about 90 percent.

“I’m not turning up my nose at 80 percent, but 90 percent would make me jump up and down,” Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey said.

County and city officials operated under a strict timeline for the cleanup in order to remove potentially toxic debris as quickly as possible.

“We don’t want those contaminants spreading,” Sosko said.

Local politicians also wanted to speed up rebuilding efforts, fearing that people will leave the area the longer reconstruction drags on. The state’s Office of Emergency Services wants to finish the cleanup by next spring.

Officials faced numerous questions as they attempted to explain the program to the public.

“The one that came up a lot was are they (residents) going to get a huge bill for cleanup at the end?” Sosko said. In fact, displaced homeowners are responsible for no out-of-pocket costs if they choose the government cleanup program, though any insurance reimbursement would go back to the program.

Coursey noted the job of selling the program was harder given the increasing skepticism of government at all levels.

“There was quite the chatter of spreading doubt and suspicion,” he said.

Those who want a private contractor for their cleanup must file an opt-out form by Nov. 22 with the city or, for people who live in unincorporated areas, the county.

Ron and Ginger DeGrange on Monday afternoon filed their application to participate in the Army Corps program for cleanup of their Cloverleaf Ranch, located off Old Redwood Highway just north of the city.

They lost homes, a barn and outbuildings on their property, making their case somewhat unique, compared to the single-family homes destroyed in the Coffey Park neighborhood.

“It makes it much more difficult” to get answers, said future son-in-law Colin Thomas, who accompanied the couple as they made the filing at the county office on Fifth Street.

Thomas said the family could opt out later to use a private contractor if they believe they can get a better deal by going that route, but at least wanted to have the protection of the government program.

James Bennett also filed an application for the program, saying it would likely cost at $90,000 to clean up his destroyed home in the Mark West Springs Road area with 18 dead trees on his property.

Bennett, however, said he was more concerned about whether city and county officials will live up to vows to streamline permitting and rebuilding plans and not nitpick those submissions.

“People have had a hard time to get things through PRMD (Sonoma County’s Permit and Resource Management Department),” said Bennett, who noted that informal message boards have sprung up expressing similar concerns among displaced homeowners.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com.

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