Thursday Deadline Looms Large for Those Who Lost Homes in Fire

Malibu Mayor Jefferson “Zuma Jay” Wagner welcomed attendees to a Woolsey Recovery meeting Wednesday night at City Hall, assuring the crowd, “I’m going through the same applications as you,” as he commented on the laborious process of filling out forms and applying for permits to start the debris removal process. The mayor, of course, lost his home in the November blaze and is as anxious as other residents to start rebuilding as soon as possible.

A panel of city, county and federal employees were on hand to answer questions regarding initial demolition and removal of hazardous waste at burned-out sites. Malibu city officials said the hazardous waste pickup phase is nearly complete, but while 200 residences have submitted right of entry forms, 60 percent or more of destroyed properties still had not submitted ROE or private debris removal forms by the Wednesday, Jan. 23 meeting. With a Jan. 31 deadline looming, the panel encouraged everyone in attendance to opt into the state’s free debris removal program.

The assistant deputy director of Los Angeles County Public Works, Coby Skye, offered a wealth of information on the initial rebuild steps.

“Debris removal is a prerequisite to begin rebuilding,” Skye said. “We have to make sure any debris is removed because of the potential of hazardous material such as asbestos.  The county wants to make sure the materials are cleared in a safe manner that does not impact you or your neighbors.”

Skye explained there are two phases for debris removal. Phase one, a sweep of household hazardous waste by trained hazmat teams, is nearly complete. Authorities are now shifting into Phase two, the process of removing all the remaining fire debris on properties. There are two options that each property owner can select. First is the county, state and federally funded program. State contractors will clear all fire debris with no direct cost to property owners. The second option is for property owners to submit a work plan to the county that describes how the debris will be removed privately and it can be costly. Some of those in attendance cited estimates ranging from $31,000 to well over $100,000. Panelists questioned the validity of lower estimates, saying that monitoring air quality, hazmat teams and tamping down airborne particles with water is costly and likely to run at least six figures. The government opt-in program is usually cheaper because of volume pricing within neighborhood groupings. 

“We want to make sure, whichever of the two options you select, that the end result is the same. We want a property cleared of any environmental hazards and ready for rebuilding,” Skye said, adding that property not cleared becomes a hazard to neighbors and the environment. “If property owners are not being proactive, we declare the property a nuisance and begin a summary abatement process. This is our last resort. We want to avoid taking that step. Some of you are procrastinating, are worried or have questions, but we’re here to guide you.”

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One big question of the evening was whether foundations could be saved if the county removes debris and if owners can be present when it is done. Owners are given 24 to 48 hours’ notice before the California Department of Emergency Services starts debris removal. Owners can be nearby, but not directly on the premises demolition is taking place (for their own safety). Experts on the panel seemed to agree that with the opt-in program of debris removal, foundations will be lost due to the fire compromising their integrity. Footings would probably be removed as well; however, caissons (often buried 15 feet below ground) and septic systems are usually saved. 

One type of insurance policy will state a percentage or amount of insurance earmarked for debris removal. If you opt in to the state debris removal program, Cal Recycle will try to recover that from insurance no matter how big the bill is. Then the owner is released of liability. 

The other type of insurance policy has no set amount specifically for debris removal. Those who opt in can use the insurance money primarily to rebuild. If there were to be nothing left over, then there would be no further liability for the debris removal that was done. If there are funds available after the rebuild, then the county could try to collect on its bill. Panelists encouraged homeowners to save receipts for other debris removal, including trees, not covered under their program.

Editor’s note: Due to an editing error, the print version of this story indicated the deadline was Friday. This was incorrect and has been updated; the correct deadline is Thursday, Jan. 31. 

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