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Suzanne Guldimann, Freelance Reporter
1:14 pm PST December 19, 2018

Rebuilding after the Woolsey Fire is going to a long, complex process, but help and guidance is available; the key is to ask for it. 

That was the message presented at two recent forums for fire victims, sponsored by Los Angeles County Third District Supervisor Sheila Kuehl.

Kuehl told a full house at Pepperdine University Dec. 16 that it is up to the County and City to make certain that they provide “every possible resource and piece of information needed” for recovery, but that it is critically important that the victims of the fire connect with the disaster recovery centers, federal programs like FEMA, and their local officials and planning department to ask questions, and actively pursue those resources.

Kuehl told her audience that everyone who suffered a loss from the fire needs to register with FEMA, even if they ultimate decide not to apply for a loan or do not require federal housing or small business assistance. The deadline is Jan. 11.

She also suggested that residents in high-risk areas of the burn zone consider applying for federal flood insurance. 

“Fire insurance must pay for damage from debris flows [caused by a fire]; it’s the law,” Kuehl said. “But you may want to buy flood insurance from FloodSmart, the national government program.”

Los Angeles County Public Works Director Mark Pestrella also addressed flood risk. He said the county and all of the agencies and municipalities that have a stake in the burn area are looking at the impacts to the watershed “regardless of political boundaries.” One of the most urgent goals is clearing storm drains and catch basins, and making sure flood risk in minimized. The bad news is that flood risk from the fire will continue to be a potential hazard for as much as a decade.

“Some areas are highly vulnerable,” he stressed, highlighting Trancas and Malibu West, where flood control structures were damaged and where debris flows are expected to be a problem due to the magnitude of the fire damage in the area. 

“Please evacuate when asked,” Pestrella urged. “[The county] is happy to come out and assess your risk.” 

The number to call is (800) 675-4357. 

Sandbags remain available at all county fire stations. Pestrella added that elderly or disabled residents can get help from local fire crews to install sandbags.

He stated that 14,000 power poles, 24,000 linear feet of guardrail and 600 traffic signs had to be replaced. Six storm drains and two bridges were destroyed. The county also lost a staggering 21,550 trees in the fire.  

Pestrella also provided information on fire debris removal and the rebuilding process. He described losing his own home to a wildfire when he was a high school student. 

“It was not easy,” he said. “There was not enough money to recover on our own.” 

Ultimately, the house was rebuilt, he said, and his mother still lives there. He shared the story to let his audience know he has been through the experience. 

Pestrella urged everyone who is impacted by the fire to go to one of the Disaster Recovery Centers — at the old courthouse in Malibu, next to the library on Civic Center Way, or at the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation building on Agoura Road in Agoura Hills. 

“You will get one-on-one customer service,” he said. 

The state program includes removal of all materials, including foundations, walls and retaining walls, and also three inches of soil to ensure the site is completely clean. Anyone hoping to use an existing foundation, or salvage an element like a retaining wall, will have to do their own site clearance. Pestrella stressed that Malibu is unusual because almost every home that burned was a custom home. 

“You can do it yourself, but you still need a permit,” Pestrella explained. 

He warned that the intense heat from a wildfire can weaken concrete, and that even a foundation that looks like it is intact may no longer be structurally sound. Special testing and core samples are required to determine if a foundation can be reused.

Although the state program specifies that eligible properties have one or fewer walls standing, Pestrella clarified that properties with more than one wall standing also may qualify, but an inspection may be needed.

The deadline to sign up for the state program has been extended to Jan. 22. All property owners participating in the state program must submit a form that grants officials permission to enter the property by the deadline.

County planning representatives and Malibu City Planner Bonnie Blue were at the meeting to let people know planning staff can help research and obtain building records. 

Residents of the city of Malibu can get help at Malibu City Hall. In the county portion of Malibu, planning help will be available at the County’s Calabasas Field office on Agoura Road. 

Plans have been put in place at the County and the City level to permit property owners to place an RV, mobile home, or other temporary housing on their land once the debris is cleared and the rebuilding process is initiated, and fees will be waved. Officials stressed that it is critically important that residents connect with them, ask questions, and be proactive moving forward with the process of recovery and rebuilding. 

Kuehl explained that she has initiated an independent review of the fire at the county level, but that the process of getting the data and analyzing it will take time. 

Kuehl said that the goal is to examine all aspects of the fire response, including how resources were deployed and where, and the entire evacuation and repopulation process.

“I am just like you,” she said. “I want to know. It will be a Brown Act group. There will be public testimony and participation. It’s not a short process.”

Information on all of the resources discussed at the forum can be accessed at www.lacounty.gov/lacountyrecovers.