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More business coverage of the North Bay fires and recovery: nbbj.news/2017fires

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has distributed about $10 million to residents and businesses that suffered losses in the catastrophic fires that hurtled through Sonoma and Napa counties starting Oct. 8.

FEMA, with a disaster-recovery center in the Press Democrat building in downtown Santa Rosa, still has work to do, said Robert Fenton, Jr., regional administrator for the agency’s region IX, with headquarters in Oakland.

One puzzling fact about the disaster recovery is that the owners of nearly 1,000 parcels where homes or businesses were leveled by flames have not come forward to seek relief from FEMA. Claims have been received from the owners of about 4,000 parcels, Fenton said.

Fenton, who has served more than 20 years for FEMA, has about 200 employees in his office. All but about 20 are deployed in the field. The North Bay fires rank as one of the biggest disasters he has ever seen. Sonoma County damage is estmated at $3 billion alone with about 5,300 homes destroyed.

“It’s definitely the biggest disaster in California I have ever dealt with,” Fenton said in an interview with North Bay Business Journal. “The number of destroyed residential structures” puts the fires as one of the most destructive.

Hurricane Katrina in 2005 caused widespread structure damage from wind and sea surge, especially in New Orleans, but a lot of structures there were “damaged but not destroyed, and can be rebuilt,” he said. Damage exceeded $100 billion in Katrina, and more than 1,200 people died. But “in the sheer number destroyed, whole communities gone,” Fenton said of structure loss in the North Bay fires, “it’s significant.”

Fenton has visited burned neighborhoods in Sonoma and Napa counties “a bunch of times,” he said. “I saw aluminum melted. That’s 1,200 degrees.”

FEMA will “continue to do case management with individuals,” Fenton said, on a long-term basis. The number of new cases at the Local Assistance Center in Santa Rosa has dropped to near zero, he said.

“There will be a high number of underinsurance in this disaster,” Fenton said. “It will take time for people to figure out they are underinsured.” After getting a settlement from their insurance company, “they figure out what it costs to rebuild, and it (insurance) doesn’t pay for what they had there before. At that point they are going to come back into our program.”

Then fire victims will come back to FEMA seeking help, he said, “and we will work with them again.”

FEMA may put victims in hotels or provide other assistance with interim housing, Fenton said. “We are bringing out mobile homes and travel trailers,” he said, to help victims up to 18 months from the time of the losses.

Debris removal will cost hundreds of millions of dollars, Fenton said, and much of it will be done by the Corps. of Engineers, which was given an initial allocation of $250 million. “That’s just a start,” he said.

FEMA worked closely with the Environmental Protection Agency to gather toxic materials released in the fires and still in the ashes of burned structures. Much of that work is done, he said, under an initial contract of $50 million. “They are impressive,” Fenton said. “They have been on the ground, moving. Once they clear the hazardous waste, I can bring the Corps. in” to remove debris.

More business coverage of the North Bay fires and recovery: nbbj.news/2017fires

“We are splitting the work between us and state agencies” such as the California Environmental Protection Agency and CalRecycle, the California Dept. of Resources Recycling and Recovery, Fenton said.

“As long as it’s safe,” the work will continue into the winter, Fenton said. Hay bales or other erosion-control tools will be employed as needed. “We are working 12-hour days on debris removal, seven days a week.”

James Dunn covers technology, biotech, law, the food industry, and banking and finance. Reach him at: james.dunn@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4257