Supe calls for FEMA assistance for county after SCU Lightning Complex Fires

Part of the SCU Lightning Complex Incident wildland fire burns in the hills near Corral Hollow Road in San Joaquin County between Tracy and Livermore, Calif., on Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020. The blaze is part of the 35,000 acres burning across Santa Clara

Despite having some of the most acreage burned and evacuees from the SCU Lightning Complex fires, Santa Clara County is one of the few Bay Area counties that has not been approved for a Presidential Major Disaster Declaration that would provide federal assistance to residents.

Santa Clara County Supervisor Dave Cortese sent an urgent request to Gov. Gavin Newsom on Wednesday asking for his help to get his county on the list to receive Federal Emergency Management Agency help.

"Santa Clara County must be added to the list," Cortese said. "Although the SCU area is not as populated as other fire areas, there are residents and cattle ranchers and others who were burned out of their homes and livelihoods and deserve access to federal assistance."

The SCU Lightning Complex fires have been burning for two weeks and have covered 391,578 acres as of Thursday morning, making it the second-largest wildfire in California history. Most of the burns and evacuations occurred in Santa Clara County too, according to Cal Fire.

At the peak of the fire, about 6,300-7,000 people evacuated, a majority of which were from Santa Clara County. Cal Fire spokesman Kevin Corbett said the number of people ordered to evacuate was "much, much higher."

Residents and ranchers who live east of Mt. Hamilton and in Del Puerto Canyon were some of the people who got it worst, Cortese said. 

Even though Cal Fire reported two civilian injuries and no deaths, the financial impacts from property damage or destruction is significant.

So far, there have been 70 structures destroyed and 17 damaged, according to Cal Fire. That number is expected to increase as Cal Fire continues to conduct its search.

For ranchers, the destruction comes with a lot of hidden and accruing fees.

"When you think about the miles and miles and miles of fencing that burned around a rancher's property, that alone is a huge expense for cattle ranchers -- people who are just trying to protect their property from trespassers," Cortese said. 

Pipelines, water troughs, corrals and other farming necessities also add up to a significant cost.

"It just so happens that the fire also hit during peak grass season. Instead of having the benefit of nature and volunteer hay, all that calculation is down the drain," Cortese said. "If you have cattle you know how many per acre that the cattle will take and now it's zero. Now you have 100 or 1,000 cattle with maybe 90 percent of their natural feed gone, that is a real expense."

Without FEMA assistance, many Santa Clara County ranchers would struggle to get back on their feet. They would also be at risk of losing their agricultural tax breaks under the state's Williamson Act that requires recipients to continuously farm the land, adding another financial strain if they couldn't.

"I would say most of that acreage in that range is under Williamson Act contract," Cortese said, "I say that not so much because they may risk losing their tax benefit -- they could. But basically, these are committed year-round farmers so then it [the costs and problems] just goes on from there."

Approval for the Presidential Major Disaster Declaration would provide eligibility for financial support and reimbursements, crisis counseling, housing and unemployment assistance and legal services. 

"It's those basic types of claims that might otherwise be covered by a private insurance in an urban or other scenario that could be eligible for reimbursement through FEMA," Cortese said. And of course, for a lot of these folks, they have fairly minimal income and revenue streams so it could be a huge boost for them." 

Cortese emphasized that it is not only ranchers who would benefit from FEMA assistance, but also those who were under an evacuation order or warning.

"The people who actually had to evacuate and the people who had to be on alert 24/7 to evacuate in this county based on SCU is a really big number and the real-life experiences and consequences of that are significant," Cortese said.

Cortese believes that the county will be joining Stanislaus, Santa Cruz, San Mateo, Napa, Solano, Yolo and Monterey counties for FEMA support relatively soon. 

"It could be two days or two weeks but now with the help from our governor, there shouldn't be any reason we do not get it," he said.