"Free" Government Program to Help Fire-Ravaged Victims May Cost Money

Fire-Ravaged Victims

The Army Corps of Engineers is expecting to clear the debris from nearly 5,000 Sonoma County homes affected by the North Bay wildfires. While their clean-up efforts are funded by state program for clearing rubble and hazmat from neighborhoods without costing homeowners more than the taxes they already pay the state, critics of this program worry that the operating procedure of extracting the foundations of homes caught in the fires may prove to be an unnecessary expense that is quite costly to the families affected by disaster.

Todd Thalhamer, an environmental engineer for CalRecycle, engineered the debris removal plan after 2007's Angora fire devastated 256 Lake Tahoe homes. He believes that a one-size-fits-all approach is the most efficient approach to the massive devastation that recently struck Sonoma County, noting that most of the concrete that remains after a large blaze is too structurally compromised to maintain.

The program, which is voluntary, is only offered to people who have survived disasters on a massive scale. Residents who sign up for the program must declare their insurance proceeds from the clean-up endeavors with the state government. Any costs remaining after insurance has a crack at restoration is handled by taxpayer funding. Rob Goodman is one such volunteer, who signed on after his Lake County home was floored after the Valley fire of 2015. Goodman commented that CalRecycle's contractors added the cost of removing his foundation to the rebuild costs and that he had to battle with his insurer to cover the extra costs, around $24,000, at the expense of time spent rebuilding his home. Goodman's lot remains empty to this day.

Conversely, Orson Armstrong, who lives opposite Goodman's home, expressed joy at being able to return to a rebuilt domicile. Armstrong passed on the government clean-up program, preferring to hire contractors from the private sector. Today, Armstrong lives in a home that satisfies all safety regulations for no more than $18,000. Lake County records indicate that government contracts averaged around $64,000.

Tom Lynch, former Planning Commissioner and construction consultant for Sonoma County, helped individuals like Armstrong to rebuild their homes while preserving foundations. It is his opinion that homeowners should contact an engineer to investigate the necessity of removing foundation, potentially sparing far greater costs and time incurred in the rebuilding process. Lynch took issue with Thalhamer's stated philosophy about foundation removal, stating that one size does not always fit all scenarioes.


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