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As Post-California Wildfire Recovery Efforts Drag On, Resources Run Low

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

They lost their homes to wildfires. That was devastating enough. But some fire victims in California are now also going through an exhausting recovery. They have waited months for a property cleanup. They are dealing with bureaucratic delays, fighting insurance companies and competing for workers to build their new homes. Pauline Bartolone from Capital Public Radio reports.

PAULINE BARTOLONE, BYLINE: After the Tubbs Fire consumed their Santa Rosa neighborhood a year-and-a-half ago, Chris and Sara Keys said the decision to rebuild was easy. And they felt lucky to get a rental home nearby for their five-member family.

SARA KEYS: Isaac (ph), are you still hungry?

ISAAC: (Unintelligible).

KEYS: What else do you want?

BARTOLONE: But the construction process has been longer and more painful than they expected. They had hoped to move in by last Thanksgiving.

CHRIS KEYS: The hardest part of it was, in the beginning, just watching - waiting six months, longer even, for just the rubble to be cleared off the property. Then waiting for the permanent process, it just was like watching grass grow.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAMMERING)

BARTOLONE: Work on their new home is underway. What was once an ash pile is now a construction zone. But building is way behind schedule, which may mean that insurance coverage that pays for their rent will run out before they have a new place to live.

KEYS: We had $90,000 to spend, which is up in the end of July, I believe. So we have to decide what and how we're going to do life because we'll have a mortgage and a $3,500 rent payment.

BARTOLONE: Of course, the Keys were better insured than a lot of people, but another move will not be easy. Since the 2017 fire, their 6-year-old autistic son developed new fears. Chris says they'll most likely move into an RV, but not everyone can fit.

KEYS: We're gonna have to split the family apart. I mean, there's no way we can get around that. Our 19-year-old will have to go to his grandmother's. Sara might have to stay at a hotel a couple of times a week so that she gets adequate sleep, and that leaves me with the kids.

BARTOLONE: Other families are headed for a similar predicament. Insurers typically cover two years of living expenses or a finite dollar amount while homes are being rebuilt. With California's pricey housing and a construction bottleneck after the fires, that financial cushion can disappear quickly.

KEITH WOODS: The process takes so long because of the number of homes that were lost.

BARTOLONE: Keith Woods works for the building industry trade association in Santa Rosa and nearby counties. He said, by the end of this year, less than a third of the 5,300 homes destroyed by the Santa Rosa Fire will be rebuilt. And it will be worse in far northern communities like Paradise.

WOODS: When you have a limited number of contractors and workers up there for construction even before the fires, they've got a real uphill climb. And the rebuild of that area will have to be the most creative building project in California history.

BARTOLONE: Creative, he says, to overcome the monumental rebuilding challenges. California lawmakers recently passed a bill that extends insurance benefits for fire victims. But that only helps in disasters starting this year.

ISAAC: Oh, show us.

KEYS: Show us. OK. She's going to show us how to use it.

BARTOLONE: Meantime, the Keys are just trying to see the silver lining. When their house is done, most likely in the fall, the Keys say, their autistic son will have his own wing of the house in case he's still with them when he grows up.

For NPR News, I'm Pauline Bartolone in Santa Rosa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.