Wildfire deadline looms for North Bay survivors, some feel victimized again

Survivors of the 2017 North Bay firestorm have an anniversary looming --  and a deadline. 

On Oct. 8, the two-year mark, most insurance companies will cut-off living expenses, whether there's a new house to live in or not.  

"We're not trying to work the system, we just need some help," said Fountain Grove homeowner Julie Rae Oliver, who is among potentially thousands of policy-holders affected. 

Oliver has been paying a $2,800 monthly mortgage on a home that burned to the ground.  

State Farm has been covering her $2,300 rent on the two-bedroom apartment where she lives with her husband and 12-year-old daughter. 

"Our rent money is gone, our 24 months is up," said Oliver, who is looking for someone to take over her lease because she cannot afford both payments. 

Oliver works as a hair stylist, and her husband is a loan officer.  

She dreads moving out, but says the family may be forced to stay with relatives for the rest of their re-build.  

"We had our permit last October but the rainy season was so long we just couldn't start," explained Oliver, "and we kept waiting and waiting and waiting, it's a waiting game."   

County leaders and Legal Aide of Sonoma County are hearing from hundreds of fire survivors in the same predicament, losing their Additional Living Expenses, or ALE.

"Two years is not a long time in terms of rebuilding a home with 5400 homes lost," Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane told KTVU. 

Zane says insurance companies created delays by using out-of-state adjusters, requiring itemized losses, and balking on coverage.  

Add to that a lengthy site cleanup, permit process, and shortages of crews and materials for so many simultaneous re-builds.  

Emotionally, it's a stop and go ordeal as well.    

"There's a lot of trauma and grief involved in being able to rebuild because it's not just structures, it's rebuilding lives," said Zane.

She objects to insurance companies yanking away a safety net now. 

"It puts a stopwatch on this process of rebuilding their lives, and I think that's really hurtful." 

Some insurers have agreed to extend ALE beyond two years, but not many. 

Others adhere to a monetary cap on the payout, regardless of when it runs out. 

"It's a disaster so you would think insurance companies would want to put on a good face and do right by people," said Vita Iskandar, who lost her Fountain Grove home and became a block captain advocating for those in her neighborhood.  

Iskandar notes, ALE is not a gift.

Consumers pay for it as part of their homeowner's coverage.  
"I know someone who couldn't get to her destroyed property because the local bridge was out for six months, something clearly out of her control," said Iskandar, "so this is another pressure and worry on top of everything else." 

The Oliver family is excited to see construction activity at their Fountain Grove lot, where they plan a 2,500-square-foot house, similar to the one that was destroyed. 

"We've done everything we can and we're not trying to drag our feet at all," said Julie Rae, hoping for a spring 2020 move-in. 

But in the short term, they have no way to pay rent, and nowhere to live, adding to the stress and casting a pall on their long-awaited progress.  

"When people say to you, 'did you get your house yet, are you back in yet?' I just want to start crying," admitted Oliver. 

Newly passed state law requires that insurance companies give customers three years after a disaster to use up their ALE.

The provision took effect Jan. 1 and is not retroactive, so doesn't help the thousands of people who lost homes in Sonoma, Shasta, and Butte County fire disasters.  

Homeowners who need help handling ALE issues can call Legal Aid at (707) 542-1290.