USA — Sadness and hope mixed this week as hundreds of Oakridge Mobile Home Park residents started heading back to their community some with the exhuberance of seeing their houses still standing while others still in shock at the prospect of having to start all over again after losing all of their possessions.
The Sayre Fire centered in Sylmar and began Friday night, forcing more than 1,500 residents to literally pack up whatever they could in a few minutes and escape the flames that firefighters say reached 50 ft. and were driven by fierce 70-mph wind.
Many of those left homeless ended up at a shelter established at Sylmar High School. By Sunday, desperate to have a first hand look at the devastation of 484 of the 608 homes in the complex, residents showed up at the entrance, only to be turned away.
Emotions ran high and anger quickly erupted at the refusal by police to let them in. The park was still a “crime scene” and investigators sifted in the debris searching for possible cadavers of those who might not have escape the fire. Eventually, they didn’t find anything, except the cremated remains of the husband of one of the residents there.
By Monday and Tuesday, residents were allowed to return.
Local, state and federal authorities have pledged help for those affected by the fire.
Los Angeles County Assessor’s Office announced Tuesday it’s providing property tax relief for those whose homes were destroyed by the fire.
Many residents had asked Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa during his visits to area shelters whether they would still be required to pay property taxes on homes that were no longer there. The mayor had reassured them he would do what he could.
“We have started identifying homes and properties destroyed or sustaining at least $10,000 in damage”, said County Assessor Rick Auerbach. “I urge anyone with questions to contact us as soon as possible at a special telephone hotline and visit our website for a downloadable Misfortune and Calamity form. The form should be submitted to make sure we don’t miss any property impacted by the fire and that we have correct contact information”.
The LA County Assessor’s Office website is http://assessor.lacounty.gov and their phone number is (213) 974- 3119, select option “2”.
At the state level, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger announced a series of resources available to help the victims of the devastating wildfires in Southern California.
“We will continue to work with our local and federal partners to do everything we can to help the victims of these terrible fires get back to their normal lives,” said Governor Schwarzenegger. “It is critical that victims know where they can turn to for help and I am committed to directing every possible resource to help people get their lives back together as quickly as possible.”
CASH GRANTS FOR FIRE VICTIMS
One of the resources the state is making available comes through the California Health and Human Services Agency (CHHS), which will begin administering cash grants of up to $10,000 available to help individuals who have suffered losses in the fires. The grants are a supplemental program to FEMA-administered assistance and help fire victims with expenses caused by a direct result of the disaster such as housing, replacing household items, medical costs and transportation. Individuals must apply for assistance through FEMA first, which forwards applications to DSS for consideration. Only those applicants who have received the maximum FEMA award may be considered for state supplemental grants. For more information, contact the California Department of Social Services, State Supplemental Grant Program at 1-800-759-6807 (TTY for hearing and speech impaired:1-800-822-6268.
The State and Consumer Services Agency (SCSA) has also set up the Consumer Protection Hotline, 1-800-952-5210, and the www.rebuildyourlife.ca.gov Web site to reduce fraud and provide easy to access information. Fire victims can access the hotline andWeb site to verify the legitimacy of a particular contractor and check for any previous complaints against businesses offering services to help rebuild their lives and homes.
BEWARE OF FAKE ADJUSTERS
California Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner has warned about “fake adjusters” “burning” fire victims twice whenever there is a major fire.
Through the hotline, callers can speak to a live operator and receive assistance in several languages.
They will be provided with contact information for vital resources like housing assistance programs and receive guidance on the services that are available for disaster recovery efforts. The hotline and Web site will also direct victims to other federal, state and local government agencies that can directly assist with their needs.
Federal help also seems to be on its way. On Tuesday, President Bush declared a federal disaster as a result of damage and destruction caused bywildfires in LosAngeles,Orange, Riverside and Santa Barbara counties. The declaration makes federal funding available to individuals displaced by the fires through grants for temporary housing and home repairs and low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses. It also provides for public assistance such as debris removal and emergencywork to repair and replace facilities damaged by the fires.
FEE WAIVERS FOR IMMIGRANTS
And for those in the middle of immigration processes, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will give special consideration to fee waiver requests from applicants who lost their residence or employment as a direct result of the recent wildfires, and apply to replace certain documents. Fees for applications can be waived when applicants demonstrate an inability to pay.
Fee waiver requests submitted in connection with the following three applications are covered by this announcement: the Application to Replace Permanent Resident Card (Form I-90); the Application for Replacement Naturalization Citizenship Document (Form N- 565); and, the Application for Employment Authorization (Form I-765). Applicants are reminded that those who file form I-765 must use the version dated May 27, 2008.
USCIS offices will remain sensitive to applicants who may be unable to provide documentation in addition to the required affidavit or unsworn declaration proving their inability to pay if they lost their home or employment as a direct result of the fire. USCIS will also consider waiving the fee for the collection of biometrics, which is required when filing a form I-90, if requested by a customer affected by the wildfires. All requests are considered on a case-by-case basis.
Those who have lost personal immigration documents to the fires are encouraged to file form N-565 to replace their naturalization certificates. While replacing green cards or work authorization documents is an immediate concern, it’s important to remember that naturalized citizens may need to show their certificate to prove citizenship at some point in the future. Naturalized citizens can’t replace passports, apply for a variety of benefits, or register to vote without a naturalization certificate.
Filing promptly to replace a lost certificate can avoid inconvenience in the future. Sharon Rummery, spokesperson for USCIS, says “there’s no way to estimate how many people lost important documents in the recent fires. We do know that some neighborhoods with a high immigrant population were affected.”
“Chances are that most people fled with wallets and purses, which means they’d have green cards and work authorization documents on them. Nobody knows right now – I’m sure many people are still taking stock”, she added.
“But one thing people sometimes lose and overlook in the rush to replace essentials is the naturalization certificate. We’d like to remind those who’ve had fire losses that filing to replace that certificate should be high on your list. Don’t wait until that 25th anniversary cruise, when you can’t get a passport without proof of citizenship, to file to replace this most important document.”
Fire Safety Kits are Available for Fire Victims
As residents return to their homes to sift through rubble, looking for possible possessions, they are encouraged to take precautions and utilize masks, gloves and take protective measures. The South Coast Air Quality District has assembled safety kits for victims of the Sayre fire. The kits will be available at the Local Assistance Center which opens today (Thursday) at the Recreation Center, 13109 Borden Street in Sylmar.