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Don't Opt In – Yet

My husband and I lost a home in the Santa Rosa fire, and two years ago, we lost a home in the Valley Fire. The lessons we learned from the first experience could help us avoid costly errors this time. Maybe our lessons can help you too. If you don't want to read the whole piece, skip to the bottom where it says, "What to do."

Lesson One:

Before you sign the government’s “Opt-In” form, make sure you understand what it says.

Quick background: The first step in rebuilding is clearing the lot. This step has two parts: an initial, mandatory clean up to remove toxic waste and a second process to remove debris. The first step should come at no cost to the homeowner, but beware of the second step.

As part of the packet FEMA and other agencies provide to fire victims, you probably received an “Opt In” form which gives government officials and their contractors the right to enter your property and clear debris. If you chose this option, they’ll do the work, and you’ll owe no more for the service than your homeowner’s insurance allows for that particular line item deduction.

For example, if your insurance will pay ten thousand dollars for lot clean up after a disaster, the government will charge you only ten thousand dollars even if the actual cost is higher.

You likely won’t know what the actual cost for clean up will be until after the work is done. Of course, this little twist can make the decision harder.

If You Don’t Opt In:

In Lake County, fire victims who didn’t sign the Opt In form received a phone-book sized packet of regulations with which they were required to comply. Noncompliance results in not getting a building permit, so it became one of those “gotcha” moments. Most local contractors didn’t have appropriate certifications to do the work required, and the few who did were leery about taking on that risk given the complexity of the rules.

Ultimately, in the Valley Fire, we opted in.

Government agencies oversaw the clean up on our lot. Our insurance policy allocated $7,500 for that line item, and that’s all we were charged. Just last week, more than two years after that fire, we learned that our actual bill came to sixty eight thousand dollar for our modest lot.

If You Do Opt In:

If you do sign the form, you need to know that the clean up crew will take everything out, including the foundation. They will likely leave a hole in the ground which will be your responsibility to fill, compact and prepare for building. In our case on Cobb Mountain, they also removed the driveway which was in perfectly good condition.

At the disaster center in Santa Rosa, Sonoma County permit employees told us we could “opt in” for the clean up but flag items we wanted to save. “If your foundation is okay,” they told us, “you can specify that you don’t want it removed.”

Later that night, however, we attended a meeting at the Santa Rosa High School, and a nice looking spokesperson named Josh told the jam packed room a different story. (Sorry, I didn't catch his last name, but I'll add it later if I find it.) “If you opt in,” he said, “they’re going to clear everything. Even if your foundation is perfectly acceptable, you can’t save it. There’s no mechanism in place to have it any other way.”

Even if an engineer certifies that a foundation is good, it will be removed.

Who Pays?

What happens if someone damages your property during clean up? According to Josh, the Army Corps of Engineers will repair any damage they cause. In fact, he said they would take measures to mitigate risks and would take photos to ensure they left properties in tact.

Unfortunately, paragraph number five of the Opt In paperwork tells a different story. It indemnified everyone. Santa Claus isn’t specifically mentioned, but it’s probably implied.

At our home in Santa Rosa, we have a long winding driveway on a three acre lot. Although it was spared in the fire, our concern is that heavy equipment could damage it, and it will cost a king’s ransom to replace.

I hope you have a ton of insurance, a rich uncle, or you’re handy with a nail gun. But if instead you're like me, the cost of replacing a foundation that didn’t need to be replaced could be the difference between rebuilding or not. And the cost of fixing damage caused by the Army Corps of Engineers during clean could be insurmountable.

What to do:

Call your representatives.

• Tell them Item #5 on the Opt In form must be changed. If someone damages your property during clean up, you should not be responsible for the cost. Don't sign that form until that item is changed.


• Tell them you’d like the option of "opting in" and keeping your foundation, drive way, or other reusable structures.

All of the officials at these meetings, from the Army Corps, FEMA, the County, the City, and everyone else, urged us to contact our lawmakers to express our concerns. They are listening and responsive, so if enough of speak up, maybe it will help. Even if it doesn't help us, it may help the next fire victims in our beautiful state. Let's all do our part.

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