With several wildfires burning in California this week and the drought-fed fire season extending year-round, it's not hard to imagine a day when you or someone you know could face the loss of home or property.
The Sand Fire that continues to burn in the Santa Clarita area has taken 18 homes, and multiple wildfire recovery efforts are underway elsewhere in the state, including in Kern County where the Erskine Fire recently destroyed more than 250 homes outside of Bakersfield.
"For many of these people, it is a complete and total loss of everything they had," said Georgianna Armstrong of the Kern County Fire Department's Office of Emergency Services.
In all, more than 203,000 acres have burned in California so far this year.
County offices of emergency services serve as the first stop for anyone affected by a wildfire. Residents can get advice on immediate needs like housing after their home is destroyed and long-term assistance as they try to restore their lives.
Still, many people who lost their homes to the Erskine Fire have received little to no state or federal assistance.
"The recovery process takes a very long time," said Brad Alexander, chief of media relations for the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services. Officials are still assessing which programs may be able to help people affected by the Erskine and Sand fires, he said.
Help often doesn't come quickly, he cautioned.
"It can be several months, several years that we work through these processes," he said, among them figuring out the costs for different programs that could help fire victims.
Alexander advised people who've lost their homes to first call on their insurance providers, if they are covered. Other resources include local nonprofits that are typically working within county disaster recovery centers that open immediately after fires. The Erskine Fire location has closed. But in L.A. County, residents affected by the Sand Fire can get information by calling 211.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency on Friday turned down Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom's request for a major disaster declaration for the Erskine Fire. That action would have loosened up federal assistance for fire victims.
The agency determined the magnitude and severity of the Erskine Fire, the most destructive in California thus far this year, was not large enough to warrant the federal aid. Instead, FEMA suggested local, state and volunteers could handle the recovery needs.
Alexander said it's too soon to know if the state will seek FEMA's help for the Sand Fire.
Kern County officials, meanwhile, are warning residents about scammers who have been offering to do contract work but who are not properly licensed. They cautioned against signing contracts or giving anyone money without first confirming they are licensed and in good standing.
There have been signs that efforts to help those impacted in the Erskine Fire are moving forward. The Kern County Public Health Services Department opened a debris removal center last week that offered free hazardous material removal of ash and debris, which can be toxic.
And the U.S. Small Business Administration began taking applications for federal disaster loans from those affected by the Erskine Fire. See details about that assistance and other resources for assistance below:
- Contact your county's office of emergency services. These agencies can help with a range of services, including replacing critical documents like drivers' licenses and Social Security cards. For the Erskine Fire, contact Kern County. For the Sand Fire, reach out to the Los Angeles County. For other counties or general questions, connect with the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services.
- Local organizations and nonprofits are also offering help. For the Sand Fire, the Red Cross is a available for immediate help. You can also call the 211 referral line in L.A. County for assistance. For the Erskine Fire, reach out to community groups like the All for One Movement or the Erskine Fire Fund.
- For those who lost a home in the Erskine Fire, state funding has been approved to help with burned and damaged debris removal. Sign up for the CalRecycle program by going to 5540 Lake Isabella Boulevard, Suite E3, between Rite Aid and Vons in Lake Isabella, or call the Kern County Pubic Health Services Department at 661-204-9125 or 661-321-3000. "This is really significant assistance," said Armstrong with Kern County's emergency services office. She said long-term recovery can't begin until debris is removed. "This is step one."
- People affected by the Erskine Fire can now apply for federal disaster loans provided by the U.S. Small Business Administration, the agency announced Tuesday. Low interest loans of up to $200,000 are available to homeowners to help repair or replace real estate. Loans are also available to help replace personal property, and for businesses and nonprofit organizations hit by the fire. Applicants may apply online or in person at the Kern River Valley Courts Building, 7046 Lake Isabella Blvd., Suite 2180 in Lake Isabella. The hours are Monday to Friday 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. for information, call 661-204-9125 or 661-321-3000.
- Beware of scams."Scammers coming in to re-victimize disaster survivors is just a standard thing that always happens," Armstrong said. "Be very cautious, if someone comes to you and they're pitching something that sounds too good to be true, it probably is." You can find more information and help via this state contractors licensing board web page.