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Although recovery from the Woolsey Fire may seem painfully slow to Malibu residents faced with the daunting task of clearing their property and rebuilding, the process is in motion and the first round of deadlines is approaching.
The deadline to register with the Federal Emergency Management Agency has been extended from Friday, Jan. 11, to Thursday, Jan. 31, FEMA announced on Jan. 9.
Property owners who lost their homes in the fire have a little more time to opt in to CalRecycle’s Wildfire Debris Cleanup program, but the deadline for that program also is rapidly approaching.
The Malibu Surfside News sat down with FEMA spokesperson Michael Hart, California Office of Emergency Services Deputy Regional Administrator Randy Styner, and Luis Santos-Serrano, public information officer for the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Office of Disaster Assistance, to learn more about the programs these government agencies are offering.
Hart stressed that everyone impacted in any way by the fire should talk to their insurance company and then register with FEMA, the lead agency in the disaster recovery process, before the Jan. 11 deadline. Eligible residents include renters as well as homeowners, and employees in addition to business owners.
“We encourage everyone affected by the fire to sign up,” he said. “If you couldn’t get to work, if you have a small business and experienced economic injury only, you should apply.”
A FEMA registration number is required for anyone seeking either a FEMA grant or an SBA loan.
“It’s better to register, even if you end up not applying for a loan,” Santos-Serrano said.
He explained that home disaster and business physical damage disaster loans are available through the SBA; so are economic injury disaster loans, specifically for businesses of any size, even the kind run out of people’s homes, that may not have sustained fire damage but have experienced loss of business because of the disaster.
Debris removal program details
Styner, whose agency works with municipal and county governments to oversee emergency operations, answered questions regarding CalRecycle’s debris removal program.
“There’s a lot of misinformation out there,” he said.
Styner explained that the program is truly at no cost to the property owner.
“Everyone is eligible and you are not going to have to write a check,” he said, explaining that the average cost is around $80,000.
If a homeowner has insurance that covers debris removal, the insurer will reimburse the state program up to the total amount of the removal cost, but not more than that amount. Homeowners who have more coverage will not pay more than cost; those with less insurance or no debris removal coverage will not be asked to make up the difference out of pocket.
Styner explained that the program is focused on safely removing debris, especially unsafe foundations, and clarified that structural features like caissons and retaining walls will not be touched.
“We understand the concern and the state will not remove retaining walls. We will remove foundations, but not caissons,” he specified, explaining that because caissons are underground, they are unlikely to be impacted by the fire in the same way the foundations they support are.
Styner stressed that the heat of the fire can change the chemical composition of the concrete, leaving it vulnerable to cracking and crumbling.
“The fire can smolder for many days, causing physical changes in the concrete,” he said. “Copper piping and rebar melts [and] chemicals can leech into the soil.”
Styner said that homeowners will have the opportunity to meet with the team assigned to clearing their property and that there is some flexibility over what gets cleared and what can remain.
“If you tell them you are hoping to find your father’s Purple Heart medal, they will try to look for it,” he said. “They can go to the property with you and you can point out the rosebush or the rock garden you want to save. Whatever it is, they will do their best. We want to do everything we can to work with you.”
He added that the only trees that will be removed are those that are a potential safety hazard. Sheds, studios, barns, or any other outbuilding that survived the fire also will not be demolished.
Styner also confirmed that property owners with a burned-out structure that has more than one wall standing can potentially participate in the program on a case-by-case basis. He recommends applying.
“You’re not signing your life away,” he said. “You don’t have to participate, but you should sign up.”
A special office dedicated to the removal program is being opened on Agoura Road in Calabasas on Tuesday, Jan. 15. An information session on the program is currently planned around the same time.
Once the clearing process gets underway it should go fast, Styner said. Anyone who wishes to participate should sign up now and submit the essential permission-to-enter form required by the state. The program doesn’t have a fixed deadline at this point, but it will only be available while crews are on the ground.
To protect residents whose homes did not burn, the program includes air quality monitoring and dust control measures, but heavy equipment will be needed, and the community is asked to be patient during this first and arguably most difficult phase of recovery.
Officials urge patience, persistence
“Patience is a big part of the process,” Styner said. “This is a huge undertaking, but we are here for the long run.”
That message was echoed by Hall.
“FEMA is here before, during and after, the disaster,” he said.
Hall reminded applicants to be persistent.
“Sometimes families get a notification that they are ineligible, often that just means their information is incomplete,” Hall said. “We will continue to work with you to get you to eligibility. Make sure to register and keep in touch with us. Correspondence is coming, so are grant checks, and we need to know how to reach you.”
Hall stressed that FEMA’s Woolsey Fire disaster relief program will continue to operate at full strength despite the government shutdown.
• For more information, or to sign up for FEMA assistance, visit the Malibu Disaster Relief Center at the former county courthouse next to the Malibu Library, call (800) 623-3362, or visit https://www.fema.gov/.
• Information on the SBA is available at www.sba.gov/disaster-assistance.
• For information on CalOES, visit https://www.caloes.ca.gov/ or call (800) 952-5225.