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Weighing Options

Opting out of the FEMA-led debris-removal program is not so easy

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NOT SO FAST  Dan Bradford is ready to rebuild, but says red tape is slowing him down.
  • NOT SO FAST Dan Bradford is ready to rebuild, but says red tape is slowing him down.

It's a busy Thursday morning in Coffey Park as the debris cleanup is in full effect.

Workers in white protective suits are clearing out home sites throughout the wasteland where some 1,300 homes were destroyed in the October Tubbs fire. The sound of beeping trucks backing up fills the air, as heavy front-loaders are making piles of trashed cars and all sorts of rugged equipment is rolling around the streets.

Numerous sites have been cleared in the mass cleanup underway. They await new foundations and the first swing of a hammer into a two-by-four to signal that the rebuilding is afoot. Throughout Coffey Park, sites have gotten the federal Environmental Protection Agency seal-of-approval, signified by a laminated certification of safety on the front lawn.

Coffey Park is coming back—except in front of the former home at 1613 Kerry Lane, where homeowner Dan Bradford has been waiting for city approval of a private cleanup and rebuilding plan submitted days after the fire by his Lake County–based contractor-friend Mark Mitchell.

Bradford is one of more than 300 residents split between the city and county who have so far "opted out" of the cleanup that's being undertaken by contractors working under a federal-state umbrella that includes the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the state Office of Emergency Services, and overseen locally by city and county officials. But Bradford had good insurance and an experienced contractor ready to go just days after the fire, and didn't want to go through the time-consuming rigamarole of the opt-in plan. Bradford thought the opt-out would expedite his rebuilding process; instead, it slowed it down.

Homeowners who lost their property to the fire, approximately 5,100 in the county, have until Nov. 22 to either opt-in or opt-out with the mass cleanup already well underway. Bradford didn't sign up and doesn't plan to. He just wants the city to approve his contractor's debris-removal plan and his rebuilding plan, and as of last Friday, he did get some good news from the city: they'd approved his debris removal plan. Now comes his rebuilding plan, which has not yet been approved.

It remains to be seen what will happen if the remaining noncompliant residents blow past the Nov. 22 date and the hold-outs don't opt-in to the program. Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore says nobody will be forced into any abatement program on Nov. 23 or forced to sign up with the sanctioned cleanup plan if they don't want to, despite the Nov. 22 deadline.

The hope is that the debris cleanup will be completed by the end of the year. But as of Nov. 22, more than homeowners out of the 5,100 burned out in the city and county still had not signed up at all. Hundreds had opted out, including Bradford, only to wait for city and county bureaucracies to catch up with their own debris-cleanup plans and set up a process for them. The city started reviewing and approving (or rejecting) opt-out plans on Nov. 13, according to emails from Santa Rosa City Manager Sean McGlynn. The debris removal was well underway by the time Bradford got his approval on Nov. 18.

According to the numbers provided by the joint county-city information center, as of the morning of Nov. 22, 188 county property owners had opted out; 139 city property owners had gone that route, including Bradford. There were 229 parcels on city land, and 381 on county land, that did not have the necessary "right to enter" paperwork filed, or hadn't signed on to the debris removal plan.

Nobody, says Gore, will be able to rebuild anything in Coffey Park until all the sites have that EPA sign in the front yard. That's to make sure contractors aren't laboring in toxic work sites. The EPA sign-off is a requirement for everyone, Bradford included, whether they opted in or opted out of the debris cleanup.

Bradford, who is 60, was burned out of his home on the morning of Oct. 8 and escaped with his two dogs. He's a respiratory therapist at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital who lost his wife, Vicki, two years ago. Bradford has been living in a Rincon Valley rental and has taken a two-month leave from work to sort out the details of his rebuilding. He considers himself among the lucky.

"You really have to stay on top of the phone calls—you can't miss a call," Bradford says of the process. He returned to work for a couple of days after the fires but realized he couldn't put his patients first if he was always waiting for that critical call from the insurance company. Bradford is not the suing type and says with a smile that the fires were an act of God. He's not jumping on to any PG&E legal action around the fire and what might have caused it. He just wants to get back into his house, with his dogs, as quickly as possible—and wonders what the hang-up is and why the city gave citizens the chance to opt-out without having a process in place to deal with people like him who went that route.

"It takes a toll," says Bradford of the emotional stress of being displaced and caught in the bureaucratic shuffle. "I've been trying to maintain some type of normalcy, but it's hard for people who are displaced. That's all the more reason to rebuild quickly." A newcomer to Coffey Park, Bradford says his heart goes out to longtime residents who were burned out.

To add insult to the injury of losing his home, someone stole the undamaged metal mailbox from Bradford's front yard. He laughs and shrugs about it as Mitchell pulls up in his truck. Mitchell, who owns Lake County Contractors, has been through this before—he's still going through it in Lake County. He rebuilt 31 houses destroyed in the 2015 Lake County fires, including, he says, the first one that went up after the firestorm.

He's eager to be the first guy swinging a hammer in Sonoma County, too, as he and Bradford take in all the surrounding activity and wonder why they can't be a part of the action. A who's who of big-dollar contractors from around the region—those Ghilotti Brothers trucks are hard to miss—are hard at work on the cleanup, while Bradford's left to contemplate his patch of black grass with his hands in his pockets.

The recent rain has brought with it the jarring vision of small square patches of very bright green grass popping up amid the charred ruins. That's a hopeful sign, but a bigger one will come once construction starts.

"People have to have hope," Mitchell says as he recounts the scene in Lake County when his crew started building their first house. People were driving by and applauding, thanking the workers, dropping off 12-packs of beer. "There's nothing like it," he says.

Bradford says if it weren't for Mitchell's quick call to him after the fire, he might have made other immediate plans, such as leaving the region entirely. There's concern over a potential "brain drain" in Sonoma County as a result of the fires, and Mitchell highlights that the more frustrated people get with bureaucracy, the more likely they are to take their insurance settlement and buy or build somewhere else.

Bradford toyed with the idea himself but was taken by Mitchell's plan for a quick rebuild.

"First, when it came to my big decision to rebuild or not, I was able to get a hold of Mark," says Bradford, "and he was really positive and enthusiastic about a quick rebuild and I said, that's the way to go. If not for Mark and the speed of his rebuilding [plan], I probably would have done something different."

The problem, as Bradford and Mitchell describe it, is that even as the city and county were setting a deadline for people to opt-in to the mass cleanup, the process for those who chose to opt-out was not fully in place, if at all, until recently.

"I've got trusses coming in 30 days," says Mitchell, but no building permits to go with them. If not for the opt-out bureaucratic hold-up, Mitchell says he'd have cleared the debris and been well-prepared for rapid rebuilding of the Bradford home.

Gore says he understands the urgency of Bradford's situation, and that Mitchell is not alone in wanting to be the first man to rebuild. He cites a constituent who has an "insatiable desire to rebuild, and I want to help him." In the endgame of a rebuilt Sonoma County, Gore says enthusiastically that he'd like to see not just 5,100 houses rebuilt, but a fresh batch of 20,000 on top of those in the county.

But it starts with just one, and Mitchell hoped it would be the Bradford house. Gore says Bradford has a legitimate point in highlighting the price of opting out of the FEMA cleanup. The last thing the county or city needs now is bad faith around bureaucracy, "which can never, ever get in the way of rebuilding," he says.

"We cannot make the private option seem to be infeasible in order to force them into it," says Gore. "That is not what the process is for, and it's not what we are doing."

The bureaucratic lag at Bradford's property highlights that there's a massive recovery process afoot with huge numbers to account for—$7.2 billion in damage, up to 9,000 jobs evaporated in the region, 43 deaths—while also being, says Gore, a human story with individual victims such as Bradford deserving of one-on-one attention from their local government. There's already been one fire-related suicide at the site of a burned-out home.

Lake County Supervisor Rob Brown has offered some advice to Gore as the county struggles out from under the ash. Brown has had numerous interactions with Mitchell and says that he's trying to do the right thing and that he's passionate about being that first guy on the scene of a disaster with the hammer.

Brown also notes the value of remaining patient in the face of a process that can be frustrating. Before any new homes are built in the North Bay, Brown says he has stressed to Gore the importance of prioritizing the completion of pre-existing infrastructure projects (the emphasis in Sonoma County will be on fixing the roads, says Gore) and making sure municipalities have hired building officials for when the rebuilding plans start to come hard and fast.

Two years after the fires, Lake County is still hiring staff, Brown says. Of an approximate 1,300 houses destroyed, Brown says around 350 have been rebuilt and 500 have been permitted over two years.

"Two years" is the most-bandied-about timeline for when people blown out by the North Bay fires will return to rebuilt homes. Mitchell's goal was to shorten that timeline for Bradford, but the city only started approving the opt-out plans as of Nov. 13. He's already behind schedule for his opt-out client, even as the opt-in house across the street from Bradford's has been cleared of debris and awaits a new foundation, and a new lease on life.

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