How to find help after a wildfire disaster

The remains of a home that burned in the Erskine Fire northeast of Bakersfield. Hundreds of homes in the Lake Isabella area now need to be rebuilt.
The remains of a home that burned in the Erskine Fire northeast of Bakersfield. Hundreds of homes in the Lake Isabella area now need to be rebuilt.
Mary Plummer/KPCC

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With several wildfires burning in California this week and the drought-fed fire season extending year-round, it's not hard to imagine a day when you or someone you know could face the loss of home or property.

The Sand Fire that continues to burn in the Santa Clarita area has taken 18 homes, and multiple wildfire recovery efforts are underway elsewhere in the state, including in Kern County where the Erskine Fire recently destroyed more than 250 homes outside of Bakersfield.

"For many of these people, it is a complete and total loss of everything they had," said Georgianna Armstrong of the Kern County Fire Department's Office of Emergency Services.

In all, more than 203,000 acres have burned in California so far this year. 

County offices of emergency services serve as the first stop for anyone affected by a wildfire. Residents can get advice on immediate needs like housing after their home is destroyed and long-term assistance as they try to restore their lives.

Still, many people who lost their homes to the Erskine Fire have received little to no state or federal assistance. 

"The recovery process takes a very long time," said Brad Alexander, chief of media relations for the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services. Officials are still assessing which programs may be able to help people affected by the Erskine and Sand fires, he said.

Help often doesn't come quickly, he cautioned.

"It can be several months, several years that we work through these processes," he said, among them figuring out the costs for different programs that could help fire victims.

Alexander advised people who've lost their homes to first call on their insurance providers, if they are covered. Other resources include local nonprofits that are typically working within county disaster recovery centers that open immediately after fires. The Erskine Fire location has closed. But in L.A. County, residents affected by the Sand Fire can get information by calling 211. 

The Federal Emergency Management Agency on Friday turned down Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom's request for a major disaster declaration for the Erskine Fire. That action would have loosened up federal assistance for fire victims.

The agency determined the magnitude and severity of the Erskine Fire, the most destructive in California thus far this year, was not large enough to warrant the federal aid. Instead, FEMA suggested local, state and volunteers could handle the recovery needs.

Alexander said it's too soon to know if the state will seek FEMA's help for the Sand Fire.

Kern County officials, meanwhile, are warning residents about scammers who have been offering to do contract work but who are not properly licensed. They cautioned against signing contracts or giving anyone money without first confirming they are licensed and in good standing.

There have been signs that efforts to help those impacted in the Erskine Fire are moving forward. The Kern County Public Health Services Department opened a debris removal center last week that offered free hazardous material removal of ash and debris, which can be toxic.

And the U.S. Small Business Administration began taking applications for federal disaster loans from those affected by the Erskine Fire. See details about that assistance and other resources for assistance below: