MENDOCINO Co., 06/28/2022 – Seven homeowners have applied for permits to rebuild after their properties were destroyed in the Hopkins Fire last September, the director of Mendocino County’s division of Prevention, Recovery, Resiliency, & Mitigation told the Mendocino Voice on Monday. The fire started at Hopkins Street and North State Street near Calpella on Sept. 12, 2021, burning for eight days and covering 257 acres before fire crews were able to contain the blaze.
As of the first week in June, hazardous waste including contaminated ash, asbestos, propane tanks, and hazardous trees had been cleared from the land on all 21 Mendocino County home sites that participated in the state’s Consolidated Debris Removal Program, according to a news release from the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. These homes represent a little more than half those damaged by the fire, in which 36 homes were destroyed, Mendocino County’s Recovery Director and Interim Assistant Director of Planning and Building Services Nash Gonzalez said. (Some homeowners opted to take responsibility for clearing the debris themselves through a private contractor program).
Cal OES also announced in June that Mendocino County would be reimbursed $60,325 to cover 75 percent of the costs of responding to the Hopkins Fire under the California Disaster Assistance Act. Mendocino County incurred $87,925 in costs from operating evacuation centers and the Local Assistance Center in Redwood Valley following the catastrophic fire – as well as in overtime, benefits, and equipment use for Sheriff’s department employees who helped with evacuations, roadblocks, welfare checks, and animal control during the disaster. Cal OES also approved another $6,032.55 to reimburse eligible administrative costs related to the Hopkins Fire.
In the months since the fire, it’s been all hands on deck for county employees focused on fire recovery. Principal Administrative Analyst Xuyen Mallela joined the department in accordance with the 2017 fire in Redwood Valley, focusing on the behind-the-scenes tasks of grant applications and grant reporting, in addition to other special projects. Where fieldwork is concerned, Disaster Recovery Field Operations Coordinator Travis Killmer started in his position just two months before the Hopkins Fire. He hit the ground running; in October, Killmer not only made a plan to install 1,500 linear feet of straw wattles and 965 feet of silt socks to keep rainwater from flooding the Russian River with toxic wildfire debris, but joined California Conservation Corps crews to set it all up in just a few hours.
“When we did those watershed protections back in October we didn’t have a state [emergency] declaration yet – so we weren’t sure that we were going to get one necessarily, so that was a bit of a scramble,” he reflected. “We managed to get out there actually the same day we ended up getting a state declaration – but that was pretty crazy, and it was a lot of support from Xuyen and even some other departments in the background … to make that happen.”
Even the less urgent days need all hands on deck, as these Mendocino County employees try to make the road to rebuilding as smooth as possible for fire survivors. Once their home sites were cleared by the state and returned to county jurisdiction this month, a few next steps began.
“First [the properties] come to the county and we make sure everything’s good, everything’s done the way it should be, so we don’t have any problems down the road,” Killmer said. “And then we can give it back to the property owner and tell them, now you’re ready to start to rebuild, whatever you need to do.”
The rebuilding process itself is a difficult one; homeowners have to communicate with their insurance companies to get construction funding, while also securing building permits and making plans in accordance with county laws. But a few ordinances and pieces of legislation are in place to help ease this transition, Gonzalez said.
For one, following the tragic Redwood Valley fire in 2017, fire survivors in Mendocino County can now defer payments on their building permits up until their new homes are approved for final occupancy. Modular homes, which are pre-built section by section prior to being installed at the site, are less expensive than a home built from the ground up – and so often insurance payments are more likely to cover the cost of rebuilding, Gonzalez explained. He said for a modular home, average initial building permit fees could land between $2,000 and $2,500; average building permit fees could be around $5,900 for a traditional “stick-built” home constructed on-site.
“This way it gives people the opportunity to work with their insurance companies and try to get payment, and hopefully the payment is received by the time they get a certificate of occupancy,” he said, adding that two modular homes are ready for final occupancy so far following the Hopkins Fire.
Fire survivors can also receive permits to live out of up to three self-contained trailers or RVs on their land, per an urgency ordinance passed by the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors in September of last year. Gonzalez said getting this ordinance in front of the board quickly was critical, in terms of opening up options for residents’ housing; three of these administrative permits are being processed currently, he said.
“I know from speaking to various survivors that I think everybody at this point has secured another place to stay,” Killmer said Monday. Some are utilizing trailers on their property, or have found housing elsewhere in town; but for some residents, it’s meant moving out of the county or state entirely.
Gonzalez said this can sometimes happen when homes were underinsured, making rebuilding costs difficult or impossible to handle.
“Like any of the other fires, we’ve heard that people move on,” he said. “They sell, they leave, [and] it doesn’t get rebuilt right away. … a lot of people move out of the county, into the city, or they even move out of state, [which] is what we saw with the Redwood Valley fire back in 2017.”
Some nine months out from the Hopkins fire, it’s evident that rebuilding these homes is not a process that can happen quickly. Depending on the type of home, final approval to occupy could be months or more than a year from now – but progress is being made.
“We make every attempt to make sure that all the tools are there for people to recover,” Gonzalez said.
More information about recovery from the Hopkins Fire is available online.
Kate Fishman is a Report For America fellow covering the environment & natural resources for The Mendocino Voice. Her position is funded by the Community Foundation of Mendocino, Report for America, & our readers. You can support Kate’s work here or email [email protected]. TMV maintains editorial control. You can reach her with news tips at [email protected] or at (707) 234-7735.