A couple hundred people who lost their homes in the Atlas Fire attended a Monday meeting to learn about the realities of rebuilding.
They can’t simply start putting up framing once their burned-out home debris has been hauled to a landfill. They must figure out what laws apply to their particular situation and obtain county permits. Their projects must meet today’s codes, with such requirements as indoor fire sprinklers.
Napa County officials said the county has hired a firm to review plans for fire rebuilding projects. Applicants who have all their paperwork together can obtain rebuild permits in a week or two. That compares to two to four weeks for a normal project.
“If it takes you a while to build your house, it won’t be because of the county,” county Planning, Building and Environmental Services Director David Morrison told the crowd.
County Supervisor Alfredo Pedroza hosted the rebuilding workshop at the Silverado Resort and Spa. The Atlas, Tubbs and Nuns fires in October destroyed 611 Napa County homes and damaged 94 others, most of them in the Silverado-Atlas Peak-Soda Canyon area.
Ellen Amador and her daughter, Cynthia Amador-Beck, were among those attending. They lived in separate, rural homes on the same Hardman Avenue property and both burned down the night of Oct. 8 in the Atlas fire. Ellen Amador showed photos on her smartphone of her house engulfed in flames.
Also on the night of Oct. 8, Ellen Amador’s other daughter fled for her life from the Tubbs Fire that rushed down Mark West Springs Road in Sonoma County.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers contractors cleared the two adjacent Hardman Avenue home sites of burn debris, though Ellen Amador said workers damaged her septic tank. She and Cynthia Amador-Beck don’t intend to rebuild copy homes. Rather, they will install modular homes on foundations.
“I’m too old to start to get contractors and everyone else,” said Ellen Amador, who lost the home she and her late husband built in 1975.
She hopes the two new homes will be installed in July or August.
“We’ve already picked out the new houses,” Ellen Amador said. “We’ve already picked out the insides.”
They came to the meeting to learn about what rules might apply to their rebuilding project, such as new laws on driveway access for emergency vehicles.
Morrison told the crowd he is amazed how much recovery work has been done in the 15 weeks since the fires broke out.
For the Atlas Fire, 75 percent of the destroyed homes have been cleared by the Army Corps, Morrison said. Fifty percent of these sites have had their soil declared clean and are ready for rebuilding.
Residents who build a similar-sized home will have the easiest path to obtaining rebuild permits. Even these rebuilt homes will have to meet up-to-date state building codes for energy, water use and other items.
One audience member told county officials he’s been in Napa County since 1978 and experienced three fires. It seems like every 10 years the brush builds up in the hills and causes fire problems.
“I would expect in another 10 years, if there’s no maintenance in the hills, there’s another (fire) that’s going to come down, whether it’s caused by PG&E or something else,” he said.
County Fire Chief Barry Biermann said Cal Fire is aggressively looking at vegetation management and fire prevention. But fire officials can’t just clear hillsides and set control burns. They must look at risks, work within environmental laws and work with the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.
He encouraged rural residents to keep reducing vegetation within 100 feet of their house to create defensible space.
“We need to build a defensible home that can stand alone without a fire engine being there,” Biermann said. “For years, it was so hard for everyone out there to understand, ‘How can a fire engine not be here?’ Well, we just saw that. When we were overwhelmed by a rapidly advancing fire, we didn’t have enough resources and then the rest of the state started burning.”
Defensible space works, Biermann said.
“Don’t give up just because this fire happened and some people had hundreds of feet of clearance and their homes still burned down,” he said. “That’s not the normal fire. The rest of the time it works. It saves homes and lives every week in this state.”
Assessor John Tuteur said the county lowered the property tax bills for people who lost their homes in the wildfires. But the house structure value doesn’t go to zero for the latest bills because the tax year began in July and the fires happened in October.
“They had the use of their house for the first quarter of the tax year,” Tuteur said.
A property assessed at $500,000 that suffered a total loss would have a hybrid of pre-fire and post-fire values for structure and land in 2017-18. What would normally be a $5,000 tax bill could drop to $2,225.
Fire victims who missed the forum have another chance. County Supervisors Diane Dillon and Ryan Gregory will host a rebuilding forum at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at Enchanted Hills Camp, 3140 Mount Veeder Road.