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Lending legal aid after the Valley Fire devastation

By Amy Yarbrough
Staff Writer

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.

Lake Fire Carport
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 resources.

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 academy.”

Lake Fire volunteers
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 said.

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 under investigation.

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 displaced.

“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 everything.

“They realized it was just stuff, and they hadn’t lost any family members,” he said.