Wednesday Sep 02 2009
Some fire victims critical during community meeting
By: Julie Eng Journal Correspondent
Officials explain response to 49 Fire, services available to residents
Emotions ran high Tuesday night at an informational meeting for Auburn residents and other victims of the 49 Fire. Representatives from the numerous agencies involved in fighting the fire and dealing with the aftermath were on hand to inform the community about how the fire started, how the different agencies responded, and what is being done to help victims return to a normal lifestyle. Many members of the audience had lost their homes in the fire, and were given an chance to ask questions and voice their opinions. Connie Krishner, whose house burned down in the fire on Sunday, was critical of Cal Fire’s actions in responding to the initial 911 calls, and was dissatisfied with the agency’s attempts to answer her questions at the meeting. She said Brad Harris, the Cal Fire’s representative, did not provide an adequate explanation. “I did not feel … that they responded quick enough, and also they didn’t respond with enough engines,” she said. “When I asked him when the second engine arrived he said ‘about the same time.’ What does he mean ‘about?’ He didn’t say what time it arrived.” Though Krishner and some others were unhappy with the community meeting, many others were pleased with the explanations provided. Annie Francia and lost her home as well, but commended the efforts made by firefighters and law enforcement officers. “Many people … did lose their homes, but we were able to get our families out,” she said. “The help that was out there was just incredible. People can criticize all they want, but in the end we have the help, we have the resources … they are on our side and they are here for us. We need to be very grateful and thankful for them.” Officials addressed a number of concerns community members had about the fire, including response times. Harris said that the engines responded as soon as possible, though the specific times of arrival continued to be disputed between officials and community witnesses. He also explained the choices made in terms of the deployment of the different engines and other resources at their disposal. “Resources trickled in over a period of time, and the incident commander had to position them where they could do the most good at the time,” Harris said. Cause of the Fire Harris also said that Cal Fire is conducting an extensive and lengthy investigation into the cause of the fire. He explained that under state law they cannot force the owners of unimproved land, like the field where the fire originated, to clear brush for fire safety. At the time he did not know the name of the property owner. One audience member claimed that homeowners in the Northpark subdivision pay taxes to the county to keep the field clear. Harris said he had no knowledge of this agreement, but promised to look into it as the fire warden for Placer County. He also said that for those who needed assistance evacuating their homes, the agency provides window stickers that alert rescue teams to their presence. Harris concluding by acknowledging that the weather provided a challenge, but that Cal Fire and the other agencies fighting the fire had done the best they could under the circumstances. He said that they took the loss of every one of the 60 homes burned personally. Roving Placer Sheriff patrols Lt. Richard Tornberg and Sgt. Andrew Scott of the Placer County Sheriff’s Office explained that the role of law enforcement in managing the incident involved clearing the roads for Cal Fire engines and evacuation. They also responded to concerns of looting in affected areas. Tornberg said that though there will continue to be roving patrols, as of Wednesday morning they will begin to pull out of the area. He advises those who have valuables in homes that survived the fire to retrieve them. Reverse 911 calls They also addressed the reverse 911 calls that called landlines and warned Auburn residents of the emergency. Scott explained that the calls were made as soon as possible, and that they attempted to warn as many people in potentially affected areas as possible. Scott and a representative from the Information Technology Division also explained that they will be providing for those who don’t have landlines. The agency is looking into establishing a way for citizens to register cell phone numbers to be notified with the reverse 911 warning. As far as recovering after the fire, several different groups offered information and resources for those looking to begin rebuilding their homes and lives. Services for victims Fire victims are urged to visit the assistance center, which County Supervisor Jennifer Montgomery called a “one-stop-shop” for those displaced by the incident. An executive order has been passed to suspend some of the state fees associated with vital records, which allows Auburn residents can get copies of official documents like birth certificates and driver’s licenses, free of charge, on-site on the day you visit. Though passports will still take three to four weeks to be replaced, Jim McCauley, county clerk recorder, says fees with be waived. There has also been a suspension of the one-week waiting period for declaring unemployment, and those seeking jobs can find aid at the assistance center. The building department is also at the center, and recommends that those residents planning to rebuild their homes come by and take advantage of the opportunity to have a representative assess the damage and help them secure proper building permits, free of charge. Also at the assistance center are applications that will allow fire victims immediate property tax relieve on damaged structures. Auburn homeowner Ricky Sanchez said that after visiting the center his property tax assessment went from $900,000 to $300,000. Those who lost their homes in the fire also can have various services and bills stopped until they are able to rebuild. Sewer service customers can have their service disconnected and bills terminated, and will not be charged to have service reconnected once they’ve completed construction on their homes. For more information, contact the Placer County Department of Facility Services. PG&E also has a booth at the assistance center, and can expedite gas and electric service for those rebuilding, or stop billing. The County Health and Human Services Department will be offering employment aid, psychiatric services, and food stamps. Department Director Rich Burton also mentioned that there are services available for those who lost pets. He said that 70-80 animals were affected, and that a number of them still haven’t been identified. He advised those searching for lost animals visit Placer.ca.gov/Departments/hhs/Animal—Services.aspx, or Petharbor.com. For those beginning cleanup, the Environmental Health Department has safety precautions they advise you follow. Because fire debris can be toxic, Jill Paul of the Health Department urges everyone wear face masks when cleaning. Though most houses built after 1978 do not contain asbestos, Paul says facemasks are a worthwhile precaution, as the mineral naturally occurs in some of the areas affected by the fire. Ordinary household refuse will be collected by the county trash collection services, and there will be two pickups on Wednesday to accommodate fire victims. However, they ask that for worker safety fire debris and ash not be deposited in trash cans. Household hazardous waste can also be disposed of at the Auburn Placer Disposal transfer station on Thursday from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.. Fire and ash debris must be hauled down to the landfill facilities, and Paul said to get it down there right away to minimize handling. Fire waste should be wetted and tarped to minimize exposure to hazardous materials, and will be accepted at the Western Placer Waste Management Authority facility at a reduced fee. Paul says that there may be state help or funding for cleaning up, so stay in touch with the assistance center for more information.