“I have to admit that I’m beginning to share my constituents frustration,” Supervisor Fred Stump said at the Mono County Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday.
Almost two weeks after the 7,000-acre Round Fire destroyed 40 structures in Paradise and Swall Meadows, the Board discussed its own confusion regarding the clean-up and rebuilding process which is tied up in bureaucracy at the State level as it awaits an Emergency declaration from Governor Jerry Brown’s office. This declaration would allow CalRecycle to aid Swall homeowners in the debris removal process and clean site certification rather than people working individually with their insurance agencies to do the same thing.
The State Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board standards don’t allow for residents to dispose of mixed fire debris at either the Benton Crossing Landfill or the Transfer Station on Lower Rock Creek Road, although they can accept metal, appliances, wood waste and aggregate if separated out for recycling. As reported last week, either residents sit tight and watch another weather event turn the area into an ash bowl or toxic mudslide, or they must somehow orchestrate and pay for a journey to a transfer station that will accept mixed burned waste, such as in Lancaster, Calif. or Sparks, Nevada.
Tony Dublino, Environmental Officer and Solid Waste Superintendent submitted a request to LADWP to use the Benton Crossing landfill site “as a staging area until an appropriate disposal site can be identified,” he told the Board. “The temporary staging area concept is our one and only contingency as far as I can tell in terms of offering necessary services to these citizens.” However, the DWP denied the request Wednesday afternoon, giving the County very few options to help residents.
“Unfortunately, this denial makes it virtually impossible for the County to develop a Temporary Staging Area…[but] we continue to work on identifying specific locations and setting up necessary agreements for where the ‘mixed burned debris’ can be taken directly from the affected sites,” Dublino said Thursday.
“The intent of the law was to deal with structures built in the ‘60s that have asbestos and lead-based paint and other things in them,” Stump said on Tuesday. “I only count maybe two structures in Swall Meadows, one of which is 100 years old, that may fall into that category. The rest of them were built under new codes, they never contained asbestos, and they never used lead paint.”
If the County obtains the State declaration, CalRecyle “will deal with the individual homeowners one on one and take the waste to Kettleman City (south of Fresno)… and clean the property down to the point where it is a certified site,” CAO Jim Leddy told the Board. This clean site certification verifies, “that the land is not contaminated, which adds value back to the homeowner’s property,” Leddy continued. If CalRecycle doesn’t come in, Leddy said other firms can work with individual property owners and their insurance companies but “we’re hoping that the State is the one to do this because they can do it quickly.”
Despite debris removal, Supervisor Stump raised several other questions and concerns for County staff. He asked what allowances and waivers can the County offer for building and use permits as well as lifting restrictions on building season in certain areas of Swall Meadows due to deer migration. He also asked Building Official Tom Perry if his department could handle 25-30 building permit applications at one time to expedite the rebuilding process.
“This is the way we can recognize the trauma that these residents have had to go through in losing their homes,” Stump said.
To a certain extent, there is only so much the Board can do as each property owner is working within the confines of individual insurance policies, which dictate much of the process.
“There’s a lot of confusion that the State and the County is going to come in and fix everything but as a general rule it’s about the insurance companies,” said Darlene Denison, State Farm agent in Mammoth Lakes. “We have experts that know how to help people recover their lives and get their homes rebuilt.”
Insurance broker, Eric Olson, agreed: “As a general rule, the insurance companies are going to take care of people [in Swall.] Some might have to work a little harder to get their money but that has to do with how the policy was written.”
Brian Jaegers at Inyo-Mono Insurance said the insurance process after a fire is “dynamic, it’s going to be a little bit different for everybody.”
Most policies include coverage for the loss of personal property and loss of use— meaning the insurance company will cover additional living expenses such as rent, utility bills, and even increased gas costs for potentially longer commutes. In simple terms, they compare the “new cost of living versus the old and they give you the difference,” Olson said. However, not all policies account for increased building expenses in the area and Supervisor Stump said many people he has spoken with are underinsured for rebuilding.
As homeowners begin to look at rebuilding, Jaegers advised everyone to look closely at a full copy of their insurance policy and work closely with their mortgage broker, as property owners still have to pay mortgage and property tax even though they no longer have a house.
Both Denison and Olson agreed the Round Fire shouldn’t affect fire coverage in the area, as many communities throughout Mono County present the same risks as Swall Meadows. Although, “it’s not the greatest place to write fire insurance, you can get it through preferred markets,” said Olson, who wrote a policy for a house in Paradise a few months ago without restrictions. “People don’t need to feel worried that there’s going to be an exodus” of insurance coverage.
Jaegers said the Round Fire “will do nothing but draw additional attention to our area. But insurance companies aren’t as fluid as the stock market where it changes from second to second. I don’t know how they will sift this through their decision matrix but it’s definitely not beneficial.”
Jaegers advised everyone in the area “to question their own insurance policies and reach out to their agents to make sure they are properly covered. Reviewing your policy after a loss isn’t the right time,” he said. “To be honest, I reviewed my own insurance after [the Round Fire] and I actually made some minor changes to it.”
And both Jaegers and Olson recommended property owners keep an inventory of possessions by taking videos or photos that can be stored on cell phones or somewhere other than in the home.
In terms of cleanup, Jaegers said insurance companies should cover debris removal, either a percentage or a dollar amount, but without knowing whether or not the State will aid in the process, he wasn’t able to speculate how it will all play out. Jaegers personally called Governor Brown’s office several times over the last week in an attempt to help the County receive the State declaration.
Even if the State does provide aid and CalRecycle is available to help with cleanup, “every policy holder is going to be thinking through what they want to do, they are going to have to approve people coming onto their property to remove debris. Some people may take a little longer,” Denison said.
By the end of Tuesday’s Board meeting, the Supervisors ratified the local health emergency based on the hazardous materials still present in Swall. “My recommendation as the director of EMS is to continue the State of Emergency until we have resolved the Public Health Emergency. There is still a lot of clean up to be done … “ said Sheriff/Director of Emergency Services, Ingrid Braun.
As the Board awaits a decision from Sacramento, they directed County Staff to research and present “actions the County could take to expedite the recovery process,” Supervisor Stump said Wednesday. The Board also scheduled a special meeting at the Crowley Community Center on March 3 from 6-9 p.m. to hear from the public and approve any necessary resolutions.