Local assistance for Erskine Fire survivors: 'There definitely are valid questions'

Nearly three dozen attendees gather to ask questions about assistance for Erskine Fire victims. (KBAK/KBFX)

Survivors of this summer's huge Erskine Fire are trying to get their lives on track, and some question why they're waiting for assistance from some local organizations. Those groups got an update on Wednesday morning, and they heard some frustration from needy victims.

"There definitely are valid questions, valid concerns," Kern River Valley Long Term Recovery Co-Chair Justin Powers said. "There's a lot of misconceptions about what different monies are there, what different funds are. And, I think that's one thing that we can work on, is working on educating the community."

The meeting had about three dozen people attending. Some were fire survivors, others represented local groups that set up to provide assistance after the blaze.

The Erskine Fire started in late June. It took two lives, and destroyed some 285 homes.

Many of those homes were in South Lake. That's where Rick Jones lost his family's mobile home, their RV, and a car.

"The fire, it just came up over the hill, and moving so fast," Jones said. He said they only had time to get themselves and their dogs out. Everything else was lost.

And, many of the survivors are starting from scratch, needing just about everything.

Richard Rowe says within days of the fire's start, Kern River Valley Revitalization teamed up with the Rotary Club to raise funds. Rowe says right now they have about $200,000 in committed donations.

But, none of the money has been handed out.

"Because we're holding on till this case management system is in place," Rowe described.

And, it's another organization that's setting up the case management, that's the work of the Long Term Recovery group. The co-chair, Powers, says they have signed up 246 households.

One woman at the meeting urged the group to get the case managers linked up with the survivors as soon as possible. Some victims said they've finished up paperwork, and still haven't heard anything back.

Powers admits, the whole process involves a lot of paperwork.

The funds from the Erskine Fire Fund are earmarked for the long-term and re-building efforts. Another group with a similar name is supposed to help with immediate housing needs.

That's the "Erskine Fire Relief" fund. A spokeswoman at the meeting said about $18,000 has been handed out so far for things like rent assistance.

These local groups say they want to put the donated dollars into assistance if a victim was uninsured or under-insured, and for needs where no government help was available.

County officials have worked out a plan for some victims to get so-called Manufactured Housing Units from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Some fire survivors met the criteria for the FEMA units, and on Wednesday, a county spokeswoman said the process is underway to move them from storage in Sacramento to a site in East Kern County. They'll stay there, until a home-owner's property is ready to have the unit installed.

The county says that program will pay for the unit, the transportation and installation. One more cost will be getting the required third-party certification of a septic system on the property.

County Emergency Services Director Georgianna Armstrong says fees for that certification will be paid through a donation from Pizza Hut, which is being administered by the United Way.

As a fire survivor, Rick Jones says he's grateful for the FEMA housing unit he's set to receive. And, he appreciates all the other assistance that's come to his family.

He also understands how the donors may be frustrated at the long process, too.

"They're going through a lot of frustration, and having a lot of a hard time in trying to get it, give it to the right people, for the right needs," Jones said.

Meanwhile, Justin Powers says his group is working hard to move forward to get the right funds into the right hands.

"What we're working on right now is getting case management underway." he said.

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