Tulare County prepares for flooding in wake of SQF Fire

Reggie Ellis

Debris clearing begins this week; deadline for property owners to apply for disaster relief for SQF Fire is Nov. 23

VISALIA – The last evacuation warnings for mountain communities were removed last week, the SQF Complex Fire is 80% contained and work begins this week to pick up the pieces in the aftermath.

On Oct. 28, Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux removed voluntary evacuation orders for all areas of South Fork Drive, Mineral King and Silver City. The only areas still closed to the public are the Mountain Home Demonstration Forest, Balch Park campground, some wilderness areas in Sequoia National Park and portions of the Sequoia National Forest including Sherman Pass Road and all areas west of Osa Meadows.

The biggest threat to property owners now is not fire but water. Reed Schenke, director of the county’s Resource Management Agency (RMA), said the loss of vegetation and soil has left the area below the burn scar of the fire highly susceptible to flash flooding.

“We need community members to be ready to evacuate again in case of flash flooding,” Schenke told the Tulare County Board of Supervisors during an SQF Recovery Task Force presentation at its Oct. 27 meeting. He said Camp Nelsen was particularly vulnerable as it is downhill from the fire and in the drainage of Nelsen Creek.

Schenke said Southern California Edison is chipping wood and leaving it on slopes to help clog flooding during winter storms. He said it is too late in the year for other measures, such as hydroseeding new plants, and instead will be posting more staff in flooding hotspots being identified now.

“This is not a one year, one winter concern,” Schenke said. “This is potentially for the next two or three years.”

Clearing debris

On Tuesday, Nov. 3, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), in coordination with the county’s Resource Management Agency (RMA) and Environmental Health Division, began phase one of the clean up effort for residences damaged or destroyed by the SQF Complex Fire, at no cost to property owners.

This phase of debris-removal includes the processing and disposal of household hazardous waste and toxic waste on-site at no cost to the property owner. The effort is expected to last three to four weeks, with work taking place Monday–Friday, but is dependent on available daylight, weather conditions, the amount of material to be removed, and other factors. Disposal of hazardous waste ensures the public health of those returning to the area and prepares affected properties for phase two, which involves the more comprehensive removal of debris.

Crews will remove electronic waste, such as: microwave ovens; LCD, plasma, and CRT displays; stereo components; copiers; phones and answering machines; VCRs, DVD/Blu-Ray players, computers, laptops, and routers (home network equipment); and calculators. Crews will also remove household hazardous wastes, including paint; pesticides; aerosol cans; fire extinguishers; pool chemicals; propane cylinders at or less than 30 gallons (e.g., BBQ tanks); intact compressed gas cylinders; ammunition smaller than .50 caliber; batteries; suspected asbestos-containing materials; and fluorescent light ballasts.

Mike Washam, associate director of the county’s Resource Management Agency (RMA), cautioned property owners against starting clean-up efforts on their own because it could make their property ineligible for federal assistance.

“You will still be held to high standards that will have to go through Environmental Health Department,” Washam said. “That could cost $70,000 per parcel on your own. It’s better to get it done for free through our process.”

Washam said County, state, and federal officials are actively working on the phase-two program. More details on phase two, including the required forms to participate in that phase, are expected in the coming days. Individuals with damaged or destroyed properties who have not yet contacted the County via the Local Assistance Center or SQF Complex Hotline are encouraged to do so.

Federal funds

Also this month are two important deadlines for those affected by the wildfire to apply for federal assistance. The deadline to apply for FEMA individual assistance is Nov. 23. Washam said 232 homes were damaged or destroyed, with most of them being a complete loss.

Tim Lutz, director of the county’s Health and Human Services Agency (HHSA), estimated about half of the households affected by the fire do not have insurance. In some instances, FEMA can fill the gap where a survivor’s insurance doesn’t provide coverage for some disaster-related costs, such as those for renting an alternative place to live while a home is rebuilt or repaired, or when coverage has been exhausted and there is still an unmet need. It is important to note that FEMA cannot pay insurance deductibles.

Homes without insurance will qualify for housing assistance through FEMA as long as the home was their primary residence at the time of the fire to rebuild or repair damage. Applicants whose homes are still inhabitable may request an inspection later if they find more damage than they previously indicated. The first step is to register with FEMA online at disasterassistance.gov, with the FEMA app downloaded to your smartphone or tablet, or by calling the FEMA Helpline at 800-621-3362 (TTY 800-462-7585).

“It’s to their advantage to at least apply for it,” Lutz said. “And if they miss that deadline, they forfeit their eligibility.”

Washam said county staff would be returning to the board soon, possibly with an expansive ordinance with a variety of considerations to assist property owners during the recovery process. He outlined five ways the county could make the process easier for those affected including: automatically issuing final demolition permits once properties have been cleared of debris, streamlining and waiving fees for building permits for those wanting to rebuild, temporarily allow RVs or trailers on sites for homeowners wanting to oversee the rebuilding process, and waive school development fees. The last item was perhaps the most financially significant as impact fees for schools could total $6,000 for a 1,500-square foot home, the average for property in the affected area. In order to ease that burden on property owners, Washam said the county is working with Springville Union School District, the elementary school district for all of the affected properties, and Porterville Unified, the high school district for the affected area, for an exemption on the rebuilt homes.

“If they rebuild with same footprint there would be no fees,” Washam told the board about the proposal.

The deadline to apply for disaster unemployment assistance is Nov. 30. Disaster unemployment assistance is available to anyone not eligible for regular state unemployment, are already partially employed, are able to work and have not refused an offer of employment for a suitable position. For additional information concerning the DUA program, individuals may contact the U.S. Department of Labor at 1-866-487-2365 or the Tulare County Employment Connection at 559-713-5089.

Infrastructure inroads

RMA director Reed Schenke said the first step to rebuilding communities began last month when the county and its utility partners began rebuilding the infrastructure to allow people to return home. Most of the roads have been cleared of debris to make way for heavy equipment needed to restore potable water, power and phone service. As of Oct. 22, six of nine community water systems damaged by the fire now have potable water. Three others, Sequoia Crest, Doyle Springs and Camp Nelsen are partially operational but are not providing potable water yet. Camp Nelsen Water Company suffered the most damage including its surface water treatment facility, which is a “long term repair” according to Schenke.

Both of the radio towers in the area have been restored. The tower on Blue Ridge did not sustain damage while the other on Jordan Peak did but is now running on solar power. With winter coming, the second tower is only a temporary fix as snow could cover the solar panels.

Edison has already begun flying in replacement power poles for the more than 500 poles damaged in the fire. They will then need to replace 22 miles of powerlines. Schenke said power has been restored to Mountain Home and Balch Park area, most of Camp Nelsen and Ponderosa is running off temporary generators.

“It will take several weeks to restore Cedar Slope and Redwood Drive area,” Schenke said.

HHSA’s Rob Stewart said he has been working on the financial side to maximize the county’s reimbursement for costs associated with the fire. Tulare County’s inclusion in the federal disaster declaration for California wildfires last month means 75% of its costs will be reimbursed by FEMA. Three-quarters of the county’s remaining 25% match will be covered by state funds, leaving the county with out of pocket for just 6.25% of the overall cost of the fire and aftermath.

The financial assistance will be key for the county, which has already spent $2.4 million in personnel costs to fight the fire and could be looking at spending $8 million in the next years just clearing dead trees.

“Nobody thought in 2020 we would have a global pandemic and the largest wildfire in Tulare County history, yet we find ourselves here,” County CAO Jason Britt said. “Everyone has come together and pitched in to make as painless as possible process.”

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