Feds finally add Tulare County fire to disaster declaration

Reggie Ellis

FEMA announces those who have suffered loss or damages from SQF Complex Fire are now eligible for federal disaster unemployment assistance and financial assistance

TULARE COUNTY – It took the federal government two months, a double take, and pleas from two local Congressmen, to acknowledge the devastation caused by the largest wildfire in Tulare County history.

After initially rejecting Tulare County’s request for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), President Donald Trump reversed his decision on Oct. 15 adding Tulare and Lassen counties to the Major Disaster Declaration for wildfires in California on Aug. 22. The designation makes property owners in Tulare County who suffered losses or damages eligible for federal assistance through FEMA’s Public Assistance Program, which can cover 75% of disaster-related recovery costs.

Those affected by the SQF Complex Fire, which includes the Castle and Shotgun fires in Tulare County, and the Sheep and W-5 Cold Springs fires in Lassen County, as well as the Creek Fire in Fresno and Madera counties were initially denied by the president and FEMA because the damages had not yet been tallied in late September when Governor Gavin Newsom originally requested those counties be added to the designation. While many of the Northern California fires were being wrapped up, fires in the Sequoia and Sierra national forests were still raging. As of press time, the Creek Fire was 61% contained and the SQF Complex Fire was 72% contained.

On Oct. 13, Representatives Kevin McCarthy (CA-23), Devin Nunes (CA-22), both of which represent portions of Tulare County, and Doug LaMalfa (CA-01), the Congressman for Lassen County, sent a letter to FEMA Administrator Peter Gaynor in support of California Office of Emergency Services’ (CalOES) request that both Tulare and Lassen Counties be added to the Presidential Major Disaster Declaration.

“In addition to the physical damage these fires have caused, according to CalOES, they have also significantly impacted unemployment, including disproportionately adversely impacting low-income, elderly, and disabled individuals, in these counties,” the letter stated.

Tulare County was finally added to the list on Oct. 15, three days after Fresno, Madera, Los Angeles, Mendocino, San Bernardino, San Diego and Siskiyou counties were added.

Record fire

While the Creek Fire has received more attention with nearly 1,000 structures destroyed and 71 damaged in the wake of a nearly 350,000-acre wildfire, the SQF Complex Fire has grown into the largest wildfire in Tulare County history. The fire was ignited from a lightning strike in the Golden Trout Wilderness on Aug. 19 and grew to more than 168,000 acres, surpassing the 2002 McNally Fire which burned just over 150,000 acres. As of press time, SQF Complex Fire had destroyed 228 structures and injured 17 people.

If you lost your home or sustained other losses because of the SQF Fire from Aug. 14-Sept. 26, 2020, you may be eligible for federal assistance. FEMA gives eligible survivors financial awards to help them pay for such needs as rent, home repair or replacement; medical, dental or funeral costs and other serious disaster-related expenses.

Insurance is generally the best source of funds to recover from a disaster and FEMA encourages property owners to file a claim with their insurance before applying for disaster assistance. If your insurance doesn’t cover all your serious disaster related expenses, you may be eligible for FEMA assistance to help fill the gap.

Take photographs or video of the damage and keep all receipts related to clearing smoke, home repair or other disaster-related needs.

Tulare County residents can apply online at www.disasterassistance.gov, by downloading and using the FEMA app on your smartphone or tablet, or by calling the FEMA Helpline at 800-621-3362 (TTY 800-462-7585) between 7 a.m. and 10:30 p.m. PDT. The helpline has specialists who speak many different languages. If you use a relay service such as a videophone, Innocaption or CapTel, provide FEMA the specific number assigned to that service when you register. Deadline to register is Nov. 23. You may also call the helpline for answers to your questions about FEMA assistance and to discuss letters that FEMA may send you.

To apply for assistance, be prepared with the following information:

  • Social security number
  • Insurance policy information
  • Address of the damaged primary dwelling
  • A description of disaster-caused damage and losses
  • Current mailing address
  • Current telephone number
  • Total household annual income
  • Routing and account number of your checking or savings account (for direct transfer to your bank account)

Before FEMA can determine eligibility for home replacement or repair, the applicant’s property must be inspected. During COVID-19, FEMA inspections are being conducted by phone. These remote inspections are comparable to traditional, in-person inspections and can expedite recovery assistance for eligible applicants. For security purposes, the inspector will verify your identity by asking a series of qualifying questions and then provide you with the first four digits of your application to complete the verification.

If you reported that you cannot safely live in your home, a FEMA inspector will contact you by phone and ask about the type and extent of damage sustained. Survivors with minimal damage who can live in their homes will not automatically be scheduled for a home inspection when applying to FEMA, but they may request an inspection.

Home inspections do not impact the types of assistance that may be available for other disaster-related expenses such as for childcare, transportation, medical, dental, funeral, moving and storage assistance and other serious wildfire-related expenses.

Following a disaster SBA makes disaster loans available to homeowners, renters, businesses of all sizes and private nonprofit organizations. Many survivors use SBA disaster loans to help fund their recovery. SBA has established a Virtual Disaster Loan Outreach Center to help homeowners and renters. Customer service representatives are available to assist business owners and individuals, to answer questions about SBA’s disaster loan program, explain the application process and help each person complete their electronic loan application.

For the latest information on wildfire recovery, visit www.fema.gov/disaster/4558 and follow the FEMA Region 9 Twitter account at twitter.com/femaregion9.

Going home

Many people are returning to their homes this week to pick up the pieces from the fire and others trekking up the mountains to check in on their vacation cabins.

On Monday, Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux lifted voluntary evacuation orders, meaning there are no safety restrictions, for several areas including Camp Nelson, Pier Point, Mountain Aire, Coy Flat, Doyle Springs, Rogers Camp, Sequoia Crest, Alpine Village, Redwood Drive Area, Balch Park Road, including Blue Ridge Drive and Bear Creek Road.

All remaining Voluntary Evacuation Warnings remain in place. Evacuation warnings are still in place on South Fork Drive past Conley Bridge to the end of South Fork Drive, Silver City and Mineral King.

Crews continue to work and travel in the areas. Please do not travel into these communities, as extra traffic can impact the ability for crews to quickly get in and out of the fire area.

Mountain Home Demonstration State Forest and Balch Park Campground remain closed as of press time.

Visitors may now access the Trail of 100 Giants. The roads are open from California Hot Springs to the intersection of Western Divide (M107) with Last Chance Road (Forest Road No. 22S02). From there, a visitor can travel down Last Chance Road to the Lloyd Meadow Road (Forest Road No. 22S82) then south to reach Johnsondale. Areas west to the forest boundary and north of this route are closed, while areas south are open.

The public can also travel from the intersection of Mountain Road 99 up Sherman Pass Road (Forest Road No. 22S05) to its intersection with Cherry Hill Road (Forest Road No. 22S12), where the Sherman Pass Road is closed going northeast. The forest area north of that route is closed, while the area south is open to the public.

Sherman Pass Road remains closed from its intersection with Cherry Hill Road to just south of Blackrock, where it intersects with Forest Road No. 21S02. From there, the closure boundary heads north along Forest Road No. 21S02 to tie in with the Forest boundary at Osa Meadows. All areas west of this route are closed. East of this route is open to the public.

Fire equipment continues to travel routes that are closed, extinguishing hot spots, removing hazards, and working on suppression repair. Once work is complete, additional areas will reopen to the public.

At this time, only residents are allowed to return into areas under evacuation warnings and areas closed by the U.S. Forest Service/Sequoia National Forest. Check with the Sequoia National Forest for forest closure updates.

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