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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

The demand in Sonoma County for government-provided housing after the October wildfires has been surprisingly low, because even though the disaster claimed several thousand local homes, many displaced residents apparently found accommodations through their family, friends or insurance company.

Out of more than 3,200 fire victim applicants who the Federal Emergency Management Agency has said were eligible to be considered for temporary public housing, just 189 said they needed it, according to figures released earlier this month.

Most of the need is being filled in RV spots at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds and at apartments leased by the federal government.

Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who represents the area including the fairgrounds site, said she expected a greater interest in FEMA housing, recalling how federal officials prepared to deploy as many as 500 temporary housing units shortly after the fires broke out three months ago.

“The fact that we need a lot less than that surprised me,” Zane said. “Which means either people are finding housing, they’re staying with friends and family, or they’re moving out of the area. I think it’s a little bit of each.”

Following the fires, FEMA received 16,500 registrations from people seeking some form of government assistance, including direct financial aid, in Sonoma County.

Interviews with more than 3,200 applicants who could be considered for federal housing showed more than two-thirds found new accommodations on their own, said Robert Presapane, FEMA division supervisor for Sonoma County, in a presentation to the Board of Supervisors last week.

“We know that not everything is a government solution,” Presapane told supervisors, noting that most disaster victims typically work with people they know to find a new place to live.

The fire victims seeking housing from FEMA represent fewer than 6 percent of those the agency found eligible so far, compared to a historical norm of around 10 percent from other disasters, according to Presapane.

He pointed to Sonoma County’s relatively high rate of insured fire victims — more than 57 percent of those who registered had coverage, according to FEMA — as the likely cause.

FEMA already housed 82 applicants at the fairgrounds site in southeast Santa Rosa, and the agency had nearly 40 more RV spots available there and was adding capacity for 50 more, Presapane said last week.

Another 53 applicants were housed by FEMA in apartments.

Federal and local officials acknowledge the housing need could still evolve. FEMA hadn’t been able to reach 580 housing-eligible applicants through multiple phone calls, possibly reflecting some fire victims who registered for government assistance and then decided they didn’t require it, Presapane said.

And FEMA still plans to check back in with those who initially said they didn’t need government housing to make sure their situation hasn’t changed.

“We are calling the other categories of survivors to ensure that nobody falls through the cracks in the system,” Presapane said.

The county fairgrounds site has become a hub for fire-related temporary housing, including for workers helping rebuild the community.

In addition to the RV spots set aside for FEMA, officials developed another 36 for recovery workers at a cost of around $15,000, said Sonoma County Fair CEO Becky Bartling.

“We realized that, prior to FEMA getting their 120 trailers in the park, we had a lot of folks — workers — that needed a place to go,” Bartling said.

“So that’s when we made the decision that we can accommodate them by building those additional 36.”

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

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