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Weighing Options

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

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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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