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California got $1.3 billion in wildfire relief. Victims have received nothing, prompting outrage

By Liam Dillon, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

LOS ANGELES — After her home in Santa Rosa, California, burned down in the Tubbs fire three years ago, Linda Adrain moved into a tiny apartment. She didn't expect to stay long.

Adrain soon learned about plans for a complex for low-income senior citizens on the site of the fire-ravaged mobile home park where she had lived for a quarter-century. She quickly signed up for a two-bedroom apartment.

But before breaking ground, developers were relying on funding from a federal disaster relief package approved by Congress a few months after the fire. They're still waiting for the money. And so Adrain is still waiting for her new home.

"It's supposed to be a temporary place, and I've been here for three years," said Adrain, 80. "There's nowhere for me to go."

California has received more than $1.3 billion in federal aid to rebuild after the 2017 wine country wildfires, the 2018 Camp fire in Butte County and other disasters from those years. But disaster-affected homeowners and renters have yet to receive a single penny. The cause: yearslong federal and state bureaucratic delays.

As a result, renters like Adrain are going without permanent housing while homeowners are unable to cobble together enough money to rebuild their homes. In the Butte County town of Paradise, which was heavily damaged in the Camp fire, disaster victims are still living in cars and recreational vehicles on their properties as they await further financial assistance.

 

"This was a delay we wished we wouldn't have had," said Gustavo Velasquez, director of the California Department of Housing and Community Development, which is responsible for giving out the money. "Families deserve to have this money out to rebuild their lives."

More than 4,500 homes were wiped out and 22 people died in the Tubbs fire, which began in Napa County and spread through Santa Rosa in 2017. A year later, the Camp fire killed 85 people and destroyed nearly 14,000 homes, with much of the damage centered on Paradise.

In the wake of the disasters, the Federal Emergency Management Agency began providing temporary housing and other short-term assistance. Congress began approving further aid for California in February 2018 to permanently rebuild and prevent future disasters. About $300 million of that money is for 2017 relief; the remaining $1 billion is for the 2018 wildfires.

More than $300 million of the total is earmarked to finance new housing for low-income renters. An additional $250 million is dedicated to rebuild homeowners' single-family homes. A third pot of money, more than $400 million, is set aside to repair roads, water systems and other infrastructure and make other public improvements aimed at lessening the effects of future fires.

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