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Investigation: Getting answers on the long road to recovery after the Erskine Fire

It's a long road to recovery after the Erskine Fire.

Many survivors still have unanswered questions about what's being done to help them rebuild, almost eight months after the historic wildfire.

"People are just, they're wondering where the money is going, why hasn't it been disbursed already," Sheri Bryant, Case Manager with the Kern Valley Long Term Recovery Group, said.

Eyewitness News looked into the long-term recovery process after receiving complaints from survivors who said it is taking too long.

The Kern Valley Long Term Recovery group is made up of many different organizations.

The group said they are entering into the construction phase of recovery, now that they have a case management system in place.

"We are helping with the basic needs, we are helping with those next steps, the referrals, contacting other agencies, thinking outside of the box and trying to assist people in every way possible," said Cindy Filkosky, case management chair for the Kern Valley Long Term Recovery Group.

CASE MANAGERS

The Kern Valley Long Term Recovery Group said it could not spend the Erskine Fire Fund until they had a case management system in place.

All of the the case managers are volunteers, and they need more because right now not every family is assigned to one.

There are 71 families who signed up to get a case manager, 49 have one and 22 are still waiting.

"Right now what we're doing as case management is we're kind of going out and making sure everyone is safe," Filkosky said. "With long-term recovery we're looking at what's happened with the fire, where they [survivors] were and how to get them back to their new normal. There's no way we will ever repair the hole of everything they lost."

MANUFACTURED HOUSING UNITS

This is being done through Kern County and is separate from the Kern Valley Long Term Recovery Group.

"While the county coordinates with them, we are not a voting member, we don't tell them what to do, it's strictly non-government," Georgianna Armstrong, Emergency Services Manager for the County of Kern, said.

Armstrong said the California Office of Emergency Services approached the county with the idea.

"There were 70 Manufactured Housing Units remaining in California that had been brought to California previously by FEMA for wildfire events and they remained unused," Armstrong said.

After forming an agreement with the state the county went through its own case management process to vet the applications that came in.

"We were looking to help the most vulnerable people who had been displaced," Armstrong said. "They had to be homeowners, uninsured, or largely underinsured, low income people who would have tremendous difficulty reestablishing a household without assistance."

Armstrong said 28 families will receive a Manufactured Housing Unit, but they are still not in Lake Isabella.

"It seems like a long process, but when you break it down into the steps, first it's the conceptional idea, then we went to the board in August of last year to present this idea and ask their authority and direction to continue to work with the state, and then in September we brought before the board an agreement between the county and state, following in very early October with a community meeting and starting our outreach, with applications due in November, with case management closing in December," Armstrong said.

Debris also needed to be cleared from the land, and some septic systems needed to be inspected and certified.

Armstrong said there was then a bid process to get contractors to do the actual moving and installation for the housing units.

Two contractors will be working on this. The county said the contracts are in place and they are now pulling permits.

Armstrong said the contractors will install the housing units in groups of five, with each phase taking two to three weeks.

"We're getting close, I know it's been a long process, but we're really reaching a point where things are going to start moving in a really tangible way," Armstrong said.

ERSKINE FIRE FUND

The Erskine Fire Fund is the bulk of the money that will be used for long-term recovery.

The money was collected through fundraisers and donations throughout the community.

The fund will be allocated to the Kern Valley Long Term Recovery Group to assist with the rebuilding process.

It is currently being held by the Kern River Valley Revitalization, Inc. which is the fiscal agent. The Kern Valley Revitalization group said no dollars collected have gone to administration costs.

The fund started with about $161,000 and is now at about $136,000.

$20,000 was given to the Family Resource center in Lake Isabella to help families get through the winter, paying for heat, and supplies to keep people warm.

$5,000 was given to the county to help fix some of the Manufactured Housing Units.

The Kern Valley Long Term Recovery Group said there are a lot of stipulations to the funds that were donated.

Many of the donors said the money can not be given to individual people, it must be given to a vendor.

So, they can use the money to help pay for bills, but this long-term fund is mostly going to be used to buy supplies to help rebuild.

The Kern Valley Long Term Recovery group has been in contact with Habitat for Humanity and Mennonite Disaster Service.

The Mennonite Disaster Service will provide the labor to build homes.

Habitat for Humanity will also build the homes for free, as long as there are supplies and volunteers to help build.

Both of these organizations have strict guidelines on who they will help build homes for.

"They want to help the most vulnerable," Bryant said.

"We always think of the elderly as the most vulnerable, also people with children, single parents with children, disabled people," Filkosky said.

The organizations largely build framed homes, and the long-term group is looking into the pricing for mobile homes to see if that would be a better way to spend the money.

"It was discussed that maybe we use some of the funds to purchase mobile homes instead of building stick homes," Bryant said. "That's all going to have to be decided, but we need more experienced tradesmen to help us with those decisions."

Exactly how and when they will use the money is still up in the air, but the Kern Valley Long Term Recovery Group meets several times a month to move forward with that decision.

The Kern Valley Long Term Recovery Group will be holding their second construction meeting at 11 a.m. Feb. 15 at Faith Community Church, where they will talk with contractors and tradesmen to discuss how to move forward with rebuilding.

ERSKINE FIRE RELIEF FUND

This fund is through the Kern Valley Health Care District.

The Kern Valley Hospital Foundation is in partnership with AltaOne Federal Credit Union.

So far, they have distributed about $30,000.

They have about $53,000 left.

This money is helping families, mostly renters, for the short-term. It has gone towards paying first and last months rent and supplies to help people get through the winter.

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