Relief efforts essential for Rough and Ready fire victim
November 15, 2017
After driving through "a wall of flames" on either side of the road, Lawrence Sorenson breathed a sigh of relief, knowing he'd narrowly escaped the blaze from the Lobo Fire, which was spreading quickly through his Rough and Ready neighborhood and making its way toward his home.
"I won't cut it that close next time," Sorenson said, recounting the events of that morning.
It was well before sunrise on Oct. 9, and Sorenson had managed to evacuate with his dog, his bird and a few small handfuls of personal treasures. He spent the next few hours talking anxiously with neighbors that had congregated at the end of the road, some of whom he'd never met before.
Days later, when Sorenson returned home to assess the damage, he found that his mobile home and most of his belongings had been destroyed by the fire.
His yard, which had once been home to a collection of sit-on-top lawnmowers, weed-whackers and other gas-powered tools — the product of a fascination with "tinkering," he said — had been reduced to a heaping pile of scattered, burnt metal.
Sorenson, who is retired from a career in maintenance, said he'd planned on living out the rest of his life on his one-acre property, where he's lived for more than three decades. Everything had been paid off, he said. But now that his home and belongings have been torched, he has hurdles to jump over that weren't part of his vision.
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He has no fire insurance, he said, because he's never been able to find a company that would insure him.
The cleanup process
"It can be a little overwhelming for someone who's just lost their home in a fire," said John Gulserian, program manager for Nevada County's Office of Emergency Services. "We try to give anyone that's a fire victim the gold star service from the county."
Sorenson confirmed that the county's staff members have gone above and beyond to help him out.
"They had people standing by to answer questions right away," he said. "At the start, you're just totally lost and confused. But they make it easier."
County residents who lost their homes in the Lobo and McCourtney Fires, which both started the night of Oct. 8, have been advised by county officials to be patient during the slow process of rebuilding.
Due to the scope of damage throughout California that is the result of numerous early-autumn wildfires, both the federal and state governments are assisting with relief efforts.
According to Gulserian, crews contracted with the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services went out to each of the 44 Nevada County properties damaged by the Lobo and McCourtney Fires to perform hazardous waste assessments late last month.
Beginning this week, Gulserian said, those crews will return to begin the hazardous waste removal process, which he expects could take about a day's work at each property. At the end of the process, the crews will test the soil at every site they clean up to ensure that it meets the state's standards for safety.
A hazardous waste cleanup can cost a homeowner anywhere from $20,000 to $100,000, Gulserian said. But in this case, the state will be footing the bill.
Some insurance policies set money aside for cleanups. After fire victims with those types of policies have rebuilt their homes, Gulserian said, the county will ask them for that money and pay it back to the state.
"We won't take any money from them until the house is rebuilt," he said. "We're not here to make it tough for folks. We want to make it as easy as we can."
For victims without insurance, the rebuild process can be daunting. Though they won't have to pay for cleanup costs, replacing what's been lost without insurance money can seem almost impossible.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency is offering individual assistance for those victims.
The agency will pay Sorenson, and the other county residents didn't have fire insurance, $34,000 each to assist with costs associated with the aftermath of the fires.
"This very rarely happens," Gulserian said. "It takes a lot of destroyed structures to qualify for FEMA assistance, but in this case we were piggybacked with the Napa and Sonoma fires."
But $34,000 isn't much for people who have lost their homes and possessions, Gulserian said. Many victims without insurance, he said, are also taking advantage of other sources of assistance.
The U.S. Small Business Administration is offering low-interest loans to victims of California's recent wildfires, which Sorenson said he plans to take advantage of to help purchase a new mobile home.
Chaplains with the Grass Valley Police Department have set up a community disaster response fund to assist Lobo and McCourtney fire victims.
A handful of county residents have applied to receive assistance from the fund, according to Sam Barter, a Grass Valley police chaplain. He encourages others who need help to apply.
Applications are available at the Grass Valley Police Department office or online at: https://www.mynevadacounty.com/documentcenter/view/21402.
Communities around the state are in need of help in the aftermath of a devastating fire season, and many private relief efforts are aimed at the Napa and Sonoma areas, Barter said.
"We need to do something for the people in our own backyard," he said. "That's how this idea came about."
Barter and others who are organizing the fund are now raising money in order to provide as much cash assistance as possible.
With his hands in his pockets, Sorenson looked out at a charred ridgeline in the distance, taking a pause from showing me through the burnt remains of his yard.
In the aftermath of the unthinkable, he's gained a greater sense of gratitude for his community. The help he's received has been nothing short of amazing, he said.
"It's a community of silent heroes. There are people who didn't even know anyone affected who want to help out, and neighbors I've never met," he said. "I'm just going to have to go on with the help I've got. What else can I do?"
To contact Staff Writer Matthew Pera, email email@example.com or call 530-477-4231.