“Recovery” is the word local officials are increasingly saying as fire crews take the final steps to contain the Atlas, Tubbs and Nuns wildfires.
“I know the road to recovery is long,” Interim County Administrator Minh Tran said at a Thursday Board of Supervisors meeting. “It will be done the Napa way.”
Napa County is recovering from two of the deadliest wildfires in California’s history. The Atlas Fire, which killed six people, ranks 13th on Cal Fire’s list. The Tubbs Fire, which started near Calistoga and killed 22 people in neighboring Sonoma County, ranks third.
The deadliest fire is the 1933 Griffith Park Fire in Los Angeles County that burned only 47 acres, but killed 29 people, most of whom were untrained, impromptu volunteer firefighters, records show.
What’s left of the three local fires on Thursday no longer rampaged unchecked near local cities.
“The good news is the fires have not spread over the last several days,” county Assistant Fire Chief Geoff Belyea said. “They are staying within their containment lines.”
The county has had inspectors look at 108 square miles of burned area. They red-tagged 600 structures – homes, barns, second units and other buildings – as being destroyed or unsafe to enter, with the number expected to grow.
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Owners of destroyed homes can sign up with the county and have the wreckage hauled off at no cost to themselves. But when the work will begin remained unclear as of Thursday morning.
Complicating efforts is the hazardous waste that can be among the ashes, including paints, solvents, pesticides, asbestos and picture tubes from televisions and computers. The state oversees the rules and regulations for disposal.
County officials said an overwhelmed state Department of Toxic Substances Control handed oversight to the state Office of Emergency Services, which handed it to the Environmental Protection Agency. On Thursday, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers emerged as a possible overseer.
“We need to know which agency’s set of standards and regulations are going to be applied,” Planning, Building and Environmental Services Director David Morrison said.
Napa County believes a general contractor can remove wreckage. But another agency might want to review the work plans and oversee the work, even if the work is done by a private property owner, he said.
The county is setting up a team that will deal only with rebuilding permits, Morrison said. The goal is to make the rebuilding move ahead as quickly as possible.
“To the degree we can, let’s try to streamline as much as we can,” Supervisor Alfredo Pedroza said.
Supervisor Ryan Gregory said state and federal officials have challenged Napa to be creative about how aid is tailored for the county. He wants to spur the agencies to move faster than they might otherwise in such areas as debris removal.
“Let’s get to work,” Gregory said.
Meanwhile, the county Assessor’s Office is addressing concerns about people with destroyed homes keeping their Proposition 13 base property tax rates as they rebuild. Precisely how that works in individual cases will vary with how the new home compares with the old one.
Assessor John Tuteur said his office will try to contact the 600 people with red-tagged structures, once it has the list. Fire victims can have the values of now-gone homes subtracted from their property tax bills.
Tuteur said the the county lost about $12 million from the tax roll because of 2014 South Napa earthquake property damage. It has already lost $80 million from the roll with the wildfires and that takes into account only the first 86 tax relief applications. The county’s roll is $37 billion.
Supervisors said they are hearing from fire victims who want to return to the remaining evacuation areas, which as of Thursday morning included the Mount Veeder, Atlas Peak and Soda Canyon areas.
“Any guestimates on that?” Supervisor Diane Dillon asked Belyea.
“I hope in the next several days that most of the residents will be allowed back in,” Belyea said. “I’m optimistic it will be soon, however, I don’t want to say something that will give false hope…it will be very soon.”
Belyea said in some areas such dangers remain as downed power lines and fire-weakened trees. Fire officials must make certain that bridges and culverts haven’t been weakened by the blaze. Hot spots and hot ash pits remain.
A local disaster assistance center opened this week at the county’s South Campus. Fire victims can go there to receive help from 36 local, state and federal agencies, ranging from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to the county Assessor’s Office.
The center served 144 households on Monday, 268 on Tuesday and 285 on Wednesday, county Health and Human Services Agency Deputy Director Mitch Wippern said.
On Tuesday, FEMA Administrator Brock Long appeared at press conference at Napa Valley College. Among other things, his agency has made available disaster grants of up to $33,000 apiece to fire victims.
“We’re trying to move very fast to support,” Long said. “But we realize we have a long way to go and we’ll be here to make sure we help you guys recover.”
FEMA is grappling with a variety of disasters, among them the aftermaths of hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. That raises the question of whether the federal dollars will be there for Napa County.
Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, said the House of Representatives recently passed a $36.5 billion disaster bill that included $1 billion added at the last minute for California wildfires.
“I am confident we’re going to get the money we need for this event and others,” Thompson said at the Tuesday press conference.