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Advocates guide Napa Valley fire survivors seeking insurance payouts

YOUNTVILLE — The North Bay wildfires obliterated homes, belongings and keepsakes within hours or even minutes. But for many survivors, the journey toward repayment for their losses is still in its early days – and advocates for policyholders are hoping to guide some of them through a path that may take several years.

“Recovering from a disaster is a marathon, not a sprint,” Emily Rogan, chief operating officer of the San Francisco nonprofit United Policyholders, told an audience of more than 40 people during an open house at the Yountville Community Center. “Time is on your side. We want to make sure that you don’t feel pressure from claims adjusters, or anyone, to do something right away.”

The meeting is part of a series of gatherings United Policyholders – which formed shortly after the 1991 Oakland Hills Fire – is staging for those who lost homes to the Atlas, Tubbs and Nuns fires that erupted Oct. 8, devastating thousands of buildings and killing more than 40 people.

Over two hours, audience members learned tips and tactics for accounting their losses as fully as possible and squeezing out the maximum benefits from their policies to cover not only their physical dwellings but other buildings on their properties, as well as the loss of possessions and use.

“Navigating (the claims process) has been such a new experience for me,” said Anett Edington, an audience member who lost two homes when the Tubbs Fire swept through her 7-acre property west of Calistoga on the Sonoma County border. “The biggest learning curve is knowing which questions to ask.”

Despite the trauma and chaos that marked the fires’ aftermath for thousands of households, speakers urged those seeking repayment to make the process as businesslike and organized – and calm – as possible.

Policyholders were advised to:

- Keep a claim diary documenting their talks with insurance adjusters

- Explain to agents in writing what they need, when and why

- Ask for a complete copy of their insurance policy, then make a second copy to notate updates and fresh information

- Record any agreements and promises with insurers in writing to head off future disputes.

Not all families can readily record all the belongings they have lost. Rogan encouraged fire survivors to throw as wide a net as possible to document their possessions, down to scouring social media sites and acquiring photos taken by friends.

The mass of post-fire claims in Northern California had led insurers to lean heavily on out-of-state adjusters working under contract, who may not be aware of state protections for policyholders, according to Dan Wade, an attorney for the nonprofit.

Fire survivors should therefore remind adjusters of their state-guaranteed rights, he told the audience. Key protections include the right to see one’s claim file, a requirement for insurances to disclose all benefits and limitations, and a demand that insurers respond to a customer’s written communications within 15 days. State law also allows policyholders to use their payout to buy a home elsewhere rather than rebuild a burned home at the same location – a key consideration for those wishing to move to an area at lower risk from future wildfires.

Even when blessed with helpful insurance workers, survivors were urged to ready themselves to devote numerous hours documenting their losses, a process that Wade compared to “having a second full-time job” and that one homeowner described as a “spreadsheet hell” involving inventories running to 80 pages or more.

The forecast was mixed for Steve and Linda Yolo, who came to the Yountville open house while sorting through their plans to replace a house and in-law residence on Soda Canyon Road, which succumbed to the Atlas Fire. The couple’s insurance company had already fronted 75 percent of the value of their belongings and the rent on a $4,000-a-month townhome, but an outdated septic system has stalled the Yolos’ from building a single, larger house on their land.

“It’s gonna take a long time,” said Steve Yolo afterward. “If we rebuild, it’ll be a couple of years before we can move in, so we’re trying to figure things out.”

Despite the work left to come, workshops such as the one in Yountville – and even the chance simply to mingle with others dealing with their insurers – would make the couple’s road a little smoother, he added. “It’s easier, considerably, having other people who’ve gone through the same experience,” he said.

United Policyholders plans to organize another open house in the city of Napa, on a date and location to be announced.

Napa County’s annual census of homeless doubles as outreach opportunity

About 100 individuals woke up in Napa shelters on Wednesday morning while another 100 to 200 people greeted the day in their vehicles, tents and on sidewalks. Some have been homeless for years, but others have been homeless for just a few months.

Napa County’s annual Point-In-Time Count, or homeless census, is a one-day tally of all sheltered and unsheltered homeless individuals and families living in Napa County.

The purpose of the count and the accompanying survey is to increase understanding of homelessness in the community and to make sure that the programs in place are addressing the needs of the population, officials say.

Last year, the shelters were full, and nearly 100 other people had no shelter. By mid-morning Wednesday, this year’s numbers looked about the same, said Rodney Seib, shelter coordinator with Abode Services.

Exact numbers weren’t available, but by the afternoon, the estimate was between 100 and 200, according to Brandon Gardner, Napa Police Department’s homeless outreach specialist.

“It looks like our numbers are going to be higher than last year,” Gardner said.

Although some people have been housed in the last year, more people have taken to the street, Seib said. On Wednesday morning, he encountered about six people that he didn’t know. A few were from Vallejo and two were from Suisun.

“It’s a slick little camp,” Seib said. It was so well hidden he almost didn’t see it. “You walk right by it.”

While collecting information for the survey – including a person’s birthday, veteran status and where they slept the night prior – Seib dispersed information about available resources and even calmed some fears.

The new group was afraid of that they were going to get arrested if they didn’t leave, but Seib informed them that a sign must be posted in advance.

“(They were) freaked about the cops,” he said.

Many individuals on the streets are forced to be nomadic – either reparking their RV every few days or moving their campsite out of one off-limits area to another. Some people get resourceful, making walls around their campsite out of plants and other natural materials. Or they put their campsite underneath a canopy of trees, which also act as coat racks.

Some people have even placed booby traps around their campsites so that they’re alerted when someone is near.

“These folks are very creative,” Gardner said.

A 48-year-old woman staying in an encampment in the Kennedy Park area had her campsite set up like a tiny house. She had a flourishing succulent garden on one side of her tarped, dome-shaped dwelling and a patio set on the other. The perimeter was lined with stones.

“I always gotta feel a little bit at home,” the woman said.

Gardner said the woman has been without housing for about a decade. He has found her housing before, but it didn’t last, he said. In the last few months, the woman’s partner died after having an aneurysm at work and her dog got sick. On Wednesday, she seemed open to the possibility of finding permanent housing.

“You know we’re here for you,” Betty Figueiras-Davidson, mental health and substance use disorder counselor with Napa County Health and Human Services, told the woman before giving her a hug. “I’m going to leave my card one more time.”

Figueiras-Davidson responds with firefighters and local law enforcement officials to calls that might be related to mental health and/or substance use. She often decides whether or not someone can be taken in as a “5150,” an involuntary hold, and helps get people connected to resources. Then she follows up with them.

This means she works pretty closely with the county’s homeless population and has come to know many chronically homeless people pretty well.

“We lose a lot of people to illness involving alcohol,” said Figueiras-Davidson after finding out one of the homeless men she and Gardner were checking on had been diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver. It’s always difficult when someone dies, she said.

“We just want people to be safe and we want people to get the help that they need,” she said.

Since Abode Services took over shelter management, outreach and rapid rehousing in the summer, Gardner’s outreach team can focus more on dealing with police and fire calls associated with Napa’s homeless. Still, he said, even with the expertise of Abode Services, which runs operations in several Bay Area counties and focuses on “housing first,” things aren’t better yet because there is just no housing.

“With housing the way it is right now, it’s a fight,” Gardner said. “Everybody’s scrambling.” Increasing rental prices don’t help, he said, estimating that prices have gone up about $200 to $300 a month since the October wildfires.

In December, the average rent for a Napa County one-bedroom unit was $1,923 per month. The year before, the average rent was $1,745, according to Marcus & Millichap Research Services and MPF Research.

“Finding housing is really half the battle,” said Emma Moyer, senior housing programs manager at Abode Services in Napa County. She says that the organization is currently searching for housing, helping potential tenants get their paperwork ready and slowly ramping up funding.

Once housing is available, someone doesn’t have to go through the shelter in order to be housed, Moyer said. And, in order to keep people housed, Abode offers wraparound services, subsidies when necessary and teaches the new renters how to be good neighbors and good tenants, she said.

Inspectors visit model railroad building amid eviction fight with Napa Valley Expo

As model train enthusiasts battle the Napa Valley Expo to stay at the fairground they have called home for nearly half a century, fair directors have asked inspections to decide whether the club’s building is fit for occupancy.

Expo officials opened the Napa Valley Model Railroad Historical Society’s building on the Third Street fairground to inspectors Jan. 12 and again Jan. 18, according to John Dunbar, president of the fair’s board of directors.

A Cal Fire inspector went to the clubhouse during the first visit at the state-owned Expo grounds and an independent structural engineer was on hand for the second, said Dunbar, whose board last year voted to end the rail society’s lease Dec. 31 after 47 years.

Reports on the condition of the rail building – an L-shaped 4,600-square-foot exhibit built from two Quonset huts – are pending and could show whether “condemnation or remedial action” are needed, he told board members at their meeting Tuesday morning.

Afterward, the model rail group’s president, Dan Jonas, dismissed the prospect of condemning the train exhibit as simply another front in the legal fight, despite the Expo board’s assertions the building has issues with fire safety and code compliance. The rail society is suing to block the lease expiration and has not dismantled its train display.

Following the meeting, he led a spectator and a reporter on a tour of the 1/87-scale layout, whose tracks, railcars, backdrops and switching equipment remain in place and functioning more than three weeks after the order to leave.

Directors of the train society have remained publicly confident enough in their chances to keep inviting schoolchildren and other visitors to their exhibit. After a recent visit by students from Alta Heights Elementary School, Jonas recalled, “I got a letter from a third-grader who said, ‘I think the Expo should leave and you should stay!’”

Board members have called the departure of the train exhibit a necessary step toward carrying out a major makeover of the Expo property, using a master plan that would place parking at the clubhouse site to serve an open-sided pavilion that would be built to house the Junior Livestock Auction at the annual Town & Country Fair. The project also would create new exhibition and office space, in part to replace buildings that were torn down due to damage from the 2014 earthquake.

Changes at the 34-acre facility would play out over 10 to 15 years, at an estimated cost of $65 million.

For the past month, the Expo and model railroad society have traded court filings, with the fairground seeking to enforce the eviction and the rail group arguing the removal of the building illegally jump-starts the Expo’s makeover without a state-required environmental review. (A draft of the renovation plan was released in January 2017 but has not yet been approved by the fair board.)

Miniature railroading has been a mainstay of the state-owned Napa fairground since the group opened its exhibit there in 1970. However, the Expo board voted in July not to extend the rail group’s lease past year’s end, citing its future plans to reuse the site as well as the below-market rent of $180 a month.

On Dec. 29 – two days before the deadline to leave the Expo – the model rail society sued in Alameda County Superior Court to halt the eviction. Fairground directors responded four days later with an “unlawful detainer” action in Napa court seeking to uphold the eviction, but the rail group made its own motion Jan. 10 in Napa to dismiss the Expo’s filing and allow the Alameda court to decide the matter.

Steps taken by Expo officials such as seeking to remove the rail exhibition building – and planting a fresh lawn ahead of last May’s BottleRock music festival – require an environmental impact report in advance or else amount to illegal construction, said Jonas, repeating arguments made in the group’s court filings.

American Canyon crowd divided on any new marijuana ordinance

AMERICAN CANYON — Residents filled a meeting room Monday night at the Senior Center to hear about the new recreational marijuana law and what American Canyon should do to either prohibit sales, or take advantage of them.

The large crowd — something not always seen at weeknight public meetings in this commuter city — included proponents and opponents of marijuana use who heard from law enforcement, public health and cannabis experts on issues arising in the wake of Proposition 64, the 2016 initiative that legalized the drug beyond medicinal purposes.

“We’re not thinking of the children or grandchildren,” said one woman in the audience. “They’re the first ones we have to think about, not the money” from taxing marijuana sales.

“This is illegal and horrible and unethical,” she added. “We shouldn’t have it in our city.”

Others disagreed, and even probed city officials present at the meeting to learn how American Canyon might benefit from taxing marijuana.

Heidi Zipay told the crowd that a city in Colorado — which legalized recreational marijuana in 2012 — managed to finance an expensive roadwork project solely from tax revenues derived from marijuana sales.

“I think there are opportunities potentially for the city to make some money,” Zipay said in an interview after the meeting. “I think it would be fine for American Canyon to have upscale retail sales, commensurate with the size of the community. We should look into commercial growing opportunities. I think there’s tax money to be had.”

Under Prop. 64, the state of California can impose a 15 percent sales tax on cannabis and related products. But any city wishing to tax this new industry would have to first put a measure on the local ballot, according to Community Development Director Brent Cooper.

When asked by residents how much money the city could reap, Cooper said it was too early to speculate given the newness of the law and the industry evolving from it.

Others in attendance agreed with Zipay that American Canyon should allow a dispensary to open here, even if there already are multiple dispensaries just south in Vallejo.

“We have to do it right,” said Tracey Nauright, who lives in American Canyon but shops in Vallejo for cannabis-based salve to help her with back pain. “We have to take it 10 notches above Vallejo” to draw customers.

Zipay concurred, saying: “That’s the market we can attract in American Canyon. If we’re going to be the gateway to the wine country, let’s be the right gateway. Let’s set ourselves up to be successful about it. Let’s be the upper echelon, not the lower” for dispensaries.

During the meeting, residents asked questions about the health benefits and risks associated with marijuana use.

Napa County Public Health Officer Dr. Karen Relucio said as a physician she has treated patients using medicinal marijuana. She mentioned federal studies that have shown a positive impact from cannabis for people receiving chemotherapy, and those dealing with chronic pain.

She also warned of the harm of smoking marijuana for those with lung disease, or pregnant women using it and running the risk of altering brain development in their child.

Others in the audience brought up the issue of allowing backyard cultivation in American Canyon. Critics said the plant can have an unpleasant odor, while others tried to downplay or even dismiss this concern.

Police Chief Oscar Ortiz told attendees that his department has received calls about marijuana smells coming from nearby residences, and that it will continue to be something his officers will have to handle.

Ortiz mentioned he is applying for a grant so police can get more training on dealing with local cannabis-related issues.

Among those attending the meeting were members of the City Council, who came to hear what voters were saying and gauge their reaction to cannabis becoming part of American Canyon’s way of life.

Councilmember Mark Joseph said he came away unsure what the majority wants in terms of a local ordinance governing recreational marijuana.

“It sounded like it was a mixed crowd, which doesn’t help when you’re trying to get a pulse check,” said Joseph.

“There are a lot of people who are strongly one way or the other,” he said. “For me I don’t know what the read is yet. I need more interaction.”

“I’ll keep listening” to what residents have to say, Joseph added.

The city is currently conducting an online survey to solicit feedback about marijuana. The survey can be accessed on the city’s website at