CA fire burns rural homes

BY GEORGE PIPER | HAPPY VALLEY, CA | October 16, 1999


Nearly three weeks after the last wildfire embers died, new hope burns in this small unincorporated Shasta County community that saw 64 homes completely destroyed and more than 100 families in need of help.

The two-day, 2,500-acre wildfire on Sept. 26 was small compared to huge blazes that swept western states and Florida recently. But, unlike many larger fires, this one, fueled by 30-mph winds, moved swiftly into a residential area and torched properties indiscriminately. Fortunately, survivors escaped death and serious injuries in the disaster.

But they are facing a long-term recovery. Many of the homes destroyed were rural mobile homes, and as many as one-third of survivors carried no insurance.

What concerns Mike Evans is a slow response by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to assess damage for a possible disaster declaration. FEMA is expected to complete an assessment this week.

"If that does not comes through, it will leave those people who are

uninsured or grossly underinsured up the creek," said Evans, coordinator for

FaithWORKS, a county coalition of faith-based organizations that helps

people make the transition from welfare to work.

Evans and other faith-based representatives met twice with Dick Eskes, a

Church World Service (CWS) disaster resource consultant, about forming an

interfaith recovery group to assist wildfire survivors. The group's first meeting

is scheduled this week, and board members are piecing together a formal appeal

and awaiting word from FEMA. One agency representative told Eskes there is a

40 percent chance of FEMA making a disaster declaration.

If previous fires are any indication, Happy Valley may be out of luck in

getting federal assistance. Two years ago, another Northern California

community that saw some 200 homes burned received no federal assistance, although Eskes said 30 families received help from local faith groups. In Shasta County, the interfaith group is looking for a director/case manager to handle wildfire recovery with a preliminary budget of $420,000.

"A lot depends on what comes out of FEMA [preliminary damage assessment]

later this week," said Eskes, noting that housing is the primary need.

But Eskes is encouraged by the community's efforts to date. More than 500

people turned out to help clean up debris and some funds have already been

coming in, including a $4,500 donation from one individual. The American Red

Cross has been sheltering and feeding individuals, while CWS delivered

100 blankets to survivors.

A deacon at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, Evans said FaithWORKS would

provide the organizational structure and 501(c)(3) nonprofit status for the

recovery. "We propose to act as the sponsoring group and create a local

board for the Happy Valley fire disaster and focus activities on victims

with unmet needs," he said.

Area churches have inundated FaithWORKS with offers of help, said Evans. He

hopes to put the faith community at the center in terms of focus so that

Happy Valley looks at the long-term situation and not just the day-to-day

needs.

The wildfires jumped sporadically around Happy Valley. Residents hosed down

property in hopes of preventing disaster, and some narrowly escaped the

flames by driving across pastures until they could find a road not blocked

by fire. In some areas, charred remains lie next to untouched homes. "They

burnt totally to the ground, so they lost not only their homes but all of

their possessions as well," Eskes said.

Two other major fires are burning in California, but firefighters have them

mostly under control and no property is lost. A 110,000-acre blaze is burning in Trinity National Forest northwest of Weaverville, while wildfires already consumed 84,000 acres in Los Padres National Forest east of San Luis Obispo.


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