Lending legal aid after the Valley Fire devastation
By Amy Yarbrough
Killing four people, consuming more than 76,000 acres and destroying
nearly 2,000 homes, the Valley Fire in Lake County was one of the worst
wildfires in California history. But a group of new and volunteer lawyers are
among those who’ve stepped up to help victims pick up the pieces.
|A photo taken by a volunteer shows some of the devastating
damage from the Valley Fire – the remnants of an apartment complex.
For five days in early October, lawyers from Grass
Valley-based Northern California Lawyer Access’ legal incubator program, joined
by an attorney with the county court’s legal self-help center, met with
residents in the devastated town of Middletown, answering questions and providing
advice. NCLA has continued to answer calls coming into a Federal Emergency
Management Agency (FEMA) hotline, connecting local residents and the victims of
other Northern California fires with lawyers and the appropriate legal
Jo Anne Stone, executive director of the Northern California
Lawyer Referral Service, who has been answering calls through the hotline, said
although there have been questions about insurance and loss of information,
like IDs, most of the victims of the fire have been the volunteers have spoken
with are seeking landlord-tenant advice.
“A lot of people were wondering about their rights, for the
time they were displaced, if they owed rent,” added James V.M. Anderson,
one of the volunteers from the incubator program, known informally as “the
|From left, Kyle Adamson, Cleat Walters III, and James V.M. Anderson volunteered to assist victims of the Lake County Fire. Submitted photo.
Anderson and fellow academy participants Kyle Adamson, Cleat
Walters III and Gino Barrica staffed a table at a community/senior center where
representatives from FEMA, nonprofits, churches, insurance companies, the
Department of Motor Vehicles and other organizations also assembled. Helen
Cavanaugh, with the Nevada County Superior Court’s Public Law Center, also
volunteered at the table for a day.
“It’s something we all wanted to do to give back,” Anderson
The academy is one of four incubator projects that received
grants this year from the California Commission on Access to Justice.
Starting Sept. 12, the Valley Fire burned 76,067 acres in Lake,
Sonoma and Napa counties and is regarded as the third worst fire in state
history in terms of structures lost, according to an Oct. 15 report by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. As of press time, the cause remained
One victim Adamson spoke to lived in a place that had been
scorched on the outside. Her landlord contended it was still habitable, and she
wondered whose responsibility it was to clean up the ash.
Another man qualified for Section 8 vouchers but worried his
landlord might try to evict him because the landlord’s place had been burned
but his home hadn’t. A woman whose destroyed home had been bulldozed before she
had the chance to retrieve items she thought might have survived the fire wondered
what recourse she might have and whether she might be able to work things out
with her landlord.
“It was gratifying, being able to help,” Adamson said. “It’s
fortunate we all had the time and were able to drive up there.”
Anderson estimates he spoke with about a dozen people. Some were
curious what their next steps should be now that that their homes were
destroyed. Others, who didn’t lose homes, worried their rent would go up with
less housing available and wondered if they owed rent for the period they were
“The question I got a lot was, ‘how do I have this
conversation with my landlord?’” he said.
In addition to helping victims Anderson had the chance to
see a lot of the destruction firsthand and recalled seeing houses reduced to
little more than chimneys.
“Everything was burned. They had a field they were just filling
up with burned cars,” he said. “You could see how hard the firefighters had to
fight just to save things. There were entire blocks gone.”
As for the people he helped, Anderson it was surprising “seeing
how positive people’s attitudes were for just finding out they’d lost
“They realized it was just stuff, and they hadn’t lost any
family members,” he said.