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For Some Residents, Rebuilding After Fire Can Be a Long Road Home

Insurance, asbestos and federal aid are all part of the process, but help is available.

Now that the Tea Fire flames are out and homeowners are allowed to return to their homes, residents burned out by the blaze, as well as those whose homes have been damaged, face the daunting task of recovering what they can and rebuilding what they had.

As many residents are undoubtedly finding out, sifting through the ashes of their houses and possessions is a painful ordeal. It can also be dangerous.

“You’re looking at 200 houses and 200 garages with who knows what in them,” said John Ahlman, a retired Santa Barbara fire chief who now serves as the city’s public information officer. Chemical fumes, particulate matter that’s easily stirred up and, in older homes, asbestos lining, can all be in the mix, aside from the sharp-edged debris that can be stepped on. For those working in the burn area, the minimum protection required includes masks, gloves, sturdy shoes, long sleeves and trousers, and protective eyewear.

For people who live in older homes (pre-1981) with asbestos material, the best thing might be to leave things as they are and contact an asbestos contractor to remove the stuff, which is a carcinogen and is easily blown around by the wind. Santa Barbara city and county agencies and trash haulers MarBorg and Allied Waste are working on how to deal with the situation.

“This isn’t your typical construction and demolition waste removal,” Thor Schmidt of Allied Waste said.

According to Mario Borgatello, head of MarBorg, the company will have to line its containers and treat the debris like regulated waste.

Bobbie Bratz, a public information officer for the Santa Barbara Air Pollution Control District, says people working in the burn area who may be dealing with asbestos should wet their material down and keep it wet.

According to Ahlman, anyone in doubt of what to handle should call the county Hazardous Materials unit to handle the potential hazard.

Away from the ruins, families are talking to their insurance companies to try to reclaim their losses.

“The first thing I would advise them to do is to get themselves settled,” said Paul Cashman, a State Farm agent who has clients whose houses have been destroyed or severely damaged in the Tea Fire. His company has him handing checks to clients to help get them situated before they even discuss an insurance claim.

“I have people coming in left with only the shirts on their backs,” Cashman said. Once the living situation is stabilized, a discussion with the agent is important to find out what to expect, he said. Getting a home rebuilt takes years and several visits with the insurance company to iron out the wrinkles.

There are situations, for example, when the cost to rebuild the same home would exceed the price at which it was last valued by the insurance company. In that case, for State Farm, the process could come down to a line-item evaluation between the contractor’s assessment and the insurer’s with some effort to reconcile the two. Depending on the insurer and the policy, situations such as these will be resolved with varying degrees of difficulty.

For local contractor “Hud” Huddleston of A.K. Huddleston Inc., he advised families rebuilding their homes to be patient.

“It’s a very emotional time. I would advise them not to sign off on anything out of anger or fear,” said the contractor, who has helped residents rebuild after several local fires.

Looking ahead to winter, residents who live in a place downstream from the fire area might want to consider flood insurance, as county Flood Control races to prepare the area for erosion and debris that could lead to floods.

The city and county of Santa Barbara have opened a joint sandbag station at the city’s Corporate Annex Yard, 401 E. Yanonali St., available only to residents in the Tea Fire area. Another station is available at County Fire Station No. 14, 320 Los Carneros in Goleta. 

Meanwhile, public officials have mobilized to provide assistance to fire victims. The city of Santa Barbara is streamlining its planning process to push “as-built” plans through quickly. The county reminds residents that they could be eligible for property tax relief.

Assemblyman Pedro Nava has introduced legislation that, if passed, could deliver a package of tax exemptions, deductions and reimbursements to affected homeowners.

President Bush has signed a major disaster declaration for California, which will provide federal funds to programs offering individual assistance, funds to local governments and nonprofits repairing and replacing facilities damaged by the flames, as well as for hazard mitigation.

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