Fire Victims Can Get Help Clearing Debris From Their Properties If They Act Now

Only pieces of charred wall remain where this Agoura Hills house once stood. (Caleigh Wells/LAist)

Thousands of Woolsey Fire victims are beginning to face the process of rebuilding again. But one of the first steps is getting rid of the ruins and making room to build again.

A slew of federal, state and local agencies are teaming up to make that happen for residents, at no out-of-pocket cost. Their insurance or the government will pay.

But if you're one of those homeowners, listen up: crews can't get into your house unless you fill out this form giving them permission. And you'd better act fast — the deadline is Dec. 31.

TWO PHASES

The first part of the cleanup happens regardless. The Department of Toxic Substances Control and the Environmental Protection Agency go in and take care of anything considered especially hazardous or dangerous — things like propane tanks, obvious asbestos, gas cylinders, paints, oils and solvents.

The second phase is when CalRecycle steps in. They hire contractors to do assessments and remove all the rest of the debris on the property that didn't get picked up in the hazardous waste phase. Then there are a few erosion control measures, a final inspection, and finally the owner gets a certification that the lot is eligible for a building permit.

Mark Oldfield from CalRecycle called the cleanup effort this year unprecedented, because it's a bigger undertaking than it's ever handled before.

"The Woolsey Fire, the Camp Fire and the Hill Fire combined dwarf the total combined efforts we've taken in previous years, just in terms of the total number of structures that have been destroyed," he said.

This phase is set to start in January. Homeowners don't have to participate, but if they don't, they have to make sure their debris removal complies with environmental regulations. Doing it privately is also on the resident's dime, but Oldfield said participating in the state program means no out-of-pocket costs.

"It's paid for through a combination of state and federal funding and any insurance proceeds for those properties that were specific to debris cleanup," he said. "Those will be remitted back to the county and then the county would remit that back to the state."

It sounds great, but here's the problem — many homeowners have no idea they have to give written permission for crews to enter their property.

DAZED AND CONFUSED

Malibu Mayor Jefferson Wagner owned one of the hundreds of Malibu homes leveled in the fire. He stayed behind to defend his home but failed when he ran out of water. He said the experience helps him understand the plight of his constituents — and their frustrations — personally.

Wagner's house was lost after he ran out of water to fight the fire. (Photo courtesy of Mayor Jefferson Wagner)

One of those frustrations? Even he didn't realize the process of cleaning up his property was so complicated.

"I knew that there was a certification for debris removal; I didn't know it was this extensive," he said. "I just thought you hired a company, brought a dumpster, loaded it up and brought it to the dump. But that's not how this works."

His debris removal form is filled out and ready to be submitted. But other residents are still confused. The mayor's surf shop has been slow since the fire, but the landline has been ringing steadily.

"I've had, and I'm not kidding you, three calls this morning with ... people who've lost their homes entirely," he said. "Three people have called today not knowing the process. And I tell them, 'Go to the city's website.' Well, guess what? Half of them don't have internet yet. Half of them don't have power."

CalRecycle's Mike Oldfield said the agencies understand that communicating gets hard without electricity.

"When people are displaced, their access to information may be limited for a time, there's going to be a lot of confusion, but [for] our local community meetings that are held, we've reached out to the news media as much as possible," he said.

Wagner's neighbor, Alicia Stevenson, lost her home, too. She said one of her biggest complaints was that she's had to find out her next steps on her own.

"There was no general information that was distributed. That would've been very helpful," she said.

Stevenson said she's been getting her information through other community members. Wagner told her about the debris form, but she said she hasn't had a chance to fill it out.

"My sole focus has been on finding a place to live," she said.

Wagner said his one message to other fire victims is to take the process step by step: "Don't look at the long term. Don't think about the color of the roof of your house right now. Think about getting the site cleaned up and getting your occupancy back."

He said it's better to take the time to do it through the state to make sure it's done right. But he said in a best case scenario, he thinks the last property won't be cleared for at least another six months.


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