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NorCal Wildfire Survivors Say FEMA Not Responsive to Needs

"When you look at FEMA , it really revolves around East Coast and Midwestern disasters — it's floods, it's hurricanes, it's tornadoes," Santa Rosa Fire Chief Scott Westrope said.

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(TNS) - Six years ago, Santa Rosa officials built a new fire station atop one of the city's highest ridges to provide better service to a growing hillside neighborhood. Then it burned to the ground in the 2017 wildfires.

The effort to rebuild the station hit a snag last year when the city failed to qualify for Federal Emergency Management Agency aid specifically directed at helping local governments relocate public buildings or infrastructure after a disaster to avoid future damage by rebuilding in a safer place.

The threat is not theoretical. Wildfires in 2019 and 2020 again forced thousands of Santa Rosa residents to evacuate. But the city could not convince FEMA that moving the station was a cost-effective way to avoid future damage if another wildfire burned through town.

"When you look at FEMA, it really revolves around East Coast and Midwestern disasters — it's floods, it's hurricanes, it's tornadoes," Santa Rosa Fire Chief Scott Westrope said. "The primary thing they want to see is if you're moving the structure out of the floodplain."

When a federal disaster is declared after a major emergency, Washington steps in to help local and state governments manage the enormous costs of taking care of survivors and rebuilding critical infrastructure and public facilities.

California officials in communities rebuilding after wildfires say they are up against federal disaster aid rules written generations ago when hurricanes, floods and tornadoes were the most common catastrophes facing Americans.

One example was in Butte County after the 2018 Camp Fire. FEMA provided housing trailers that didn't meet building codes for wildland-urban interface locations, said Casey Hatcher , Butte County's deputy chief administrative officer leading that recovery effort. So fire survivors were housed at group sites away from the foothills and their communities in Paradise and the Feather River Canyon that are still being rebuilt. And residents were unable to apply to buy their temporary manufactured homes because they weren't up to code, Hatcher said.

County officials also felt federal disaster assistance for removing hazardous trees didn't fully take into account the ways wildfire weakens them and how to evaluate which ones may fall on roads and public infrastructure, she said.

"FEMA's policies around trees are so obviously written for hurricane areas," Hatcher said. "It talks about root structure, leaning trees, the effects of a flood. Realistically speaking, FEMA needs a wildfire playbook."

There are a pair of legislative proposals before the U.S. Senate to revamp some of FEMA's rules. Introduced last month by Sen. Alex Padilla , D- Calif. , the bills would require the agency to integrate wildfire-specific factors for assessing damage and the needs of communities in a wildfire's aftermath.

Padilla told The Chronicle that FEMA is a precedent-oriented agency that needs a nudge to better serve communities suffering amid a wildfire crisis, not just in California but also throughout Western and Midwestern states.

"The world has changed, the climate has changed, and the nature of disasters impacting California and the country has changed since FEMA was first established," Padilla said. "The policies that drives FEMA's response needs to keep up with the changing times."

The FEMA Improvement, Reform and Efficiency Act would revise rules for relocation assistance, allow FEMA to pre-deploy resources during dangerous fire weather and direct the agency to study how to improve its services for people who don't own homes, especially low-income residents in multifamily or roommate living situations. It would also require the agency to provide multilingual and culturally diverse crisis counselors and more support to tribal governments.

The Disaster Equity and Fairness Act would direct FEMA to provide added services for poorer communities where local governments and the nonprofit sector are less likely to offer those resources. It would also require FEMA to provide added resources for communities "facing cumulative impacts from repeat wildfires and other disasters."

The legislation is so far backed only by Democrats . Padilla offered little insight into how he planned to get it passed, saying he would begin seeking bipartisan support.

The senator said his proposals were spurred by a drumbeat of complaints he has heard visiting areas of the state recovering from wildfires that the federal government's main method of support was oriented for different types of disasters.

"In the past, FEMA has been focused on hurricanes, floods and tornadoes," Padilla said. "Wildfires haven't had the same level of recognition."

FEMA officials declined to comment on the kind of changes Padilla's bills would enact for the agency, saying the agency does not comment on proposed legislation.

In Santa Rosa, FEMA officials denied the city's application for relocation funding because the city "did not show" a fire station rebuilt in the same spot "will be subject to repetitive heavy damage, nor did it show that relocation would be cost effective," according to Robert Barker, a FEMA regional spokesperson who provided documentation explaining Santa Rosa's denial.

FEMA's relocation assistance helps pay for the costs of purchasing new property and site preparation needed to rebuild. It's a separate funding stream than other federal aid distributed for rebuilding. The city needed to show the fire station had been damaged repeatedly before it was destroyed in 2017 to fulfill the requirement, according to FEMA .

Agency officials also found the city "had not shown the risk of future damage from wildfires would be eliminated or significantly reduced" if the station was relocated, FEMA said.

Santa Rosa officials acknowledged the proposal for a relocated Santa Rosa fire station was far more costly than rebuilding on the original site. Assistant City Manager Jason Nutt said the station was originally put on Newgate Court because the city already owned the land, and the new location 1 mile away at Stagecoach Road and Fountaingrove Parkway was a chance to build a larger facility in a location that could provide faster response times.

FEMA granted Santa Rosa $1.2 million to help the city rebuild the fire station "back to its predisaster design, function and capacity within the existing footprint using in-kind materials," agency officials said.

But Santa Rosa is moving forward without FEMA public assistance. To cover the costs of a new fire station, the city is considering using a combination of insurance payouts, other federal grant money and a portion of a settlement Pacific Gas and Electric Co. paid for its role starting the 2017 fires.

Nutt said it was unrealistic for the city to move the fire station completely out of the urban-wildland interface, an issue highlighted by FEMA , because of the city's obligation to provide firefighting and emergency services to those residents. Nutt said it felt obvious some of FEMA's criteria didn't incorporate the unique challenges posed by the state's growing wildfire crisis.

"We may have been the first one to bring up the issue, but we won't be the last to ask FEMA to relocate a fire station back into a high-fire danger zone," Nutt said. "This is about making it OK for us to have this specific discussion."

Julie Johnson is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: julie.johnson@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @juliejohnson

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