These wildfire survivors say FEMA did little to help those who lost homes

A woman kisses a baby she is holding amid wildfire damage.
Hannah Hammonds holds her 6-month-old son, Koda Hammonds, on her family’s property in Grizzly Flats. Her family’s home was destroyed in the Caldor fire last fall.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
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It took 120 years for Candance Tyler’s family to build a life in Grizzly Flats.

It took a wildfire just a few hours to destroy it.

The first shock came when Tyler learned her family’s 500-acre timber ranch, on which stood seven homes including the original 1854 homestead, had been reduced to rubble.

The second came when she learned there would be no assistance from the federal government to help her and other survivors of last year’s Caldor fire rebuild.

A woman drives through the woods
Candance Tyler drives an all-terrain vehicle on her family’s property in Grizzly Flats, which was destroyed by the Caldor fire.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
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“It’s heartbreaking and devastating,” Tyler said. “I feel like our community has been forgotten about and left behind to pick up the pieces by itself.”

While the Federal Emergency Management Agency is often seen providing trailers and money to victims of hurricanes, tornadoes and floods, survivors of this California wildfire complain that the agency has had little to offer them when their homes were destroyed by flames.

Although FEMA has made funds available to reimburse the state and local governments for costs related to the Caldor fire, the agency did not approve a request from California Gov. Gavin Newsom to provide for individual assistance, which would go directly to uninsured or underinsured residents to help with temporary housing and rebuilding costs.

The move has perplexed state officials and added to criticism that FEMA’s assistance programs are geared more toward Eastern and Midwestern disasters, and not the worsening climate change fueled-wildfires that have seen California’s requests for emergency aid skyrocket in recent years. The perceived imbalance has already inspired legislation in the U.S. Senate.

Now, as insurance companies continue to drop policies and raise premiums beyond the reach of many homeowners in fire-vulnerable areas, confusing and opaque criteria for obtaining federal assistance have added to the woes of those who have lost their homes.

“One of the points of contention is basically we’re providing individual assistance to other states for less, so why are we not doing it in this particular case when we have more homes destroyed?” said Brian Ferguson, spokesman for the California Office of Emergency Services.

The Times spoke with a dozen Grizzly Flats residents whose houses burned. Some were first-time homeowners who had their lives upended. Others had worked for decades and have been forced to postpone planned retirements or start working again to pay for housing. Not one of them has found that their insurance, if they had it, was sufficient to cover the cost of what they lost.

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Burnt vehicles scattered among other debris from Caldor fire.
The Caldor Fire left a moonscape of burnt forest, homes and vehicles in the community of Grizzly Flats.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

FEMA said it considered multiple factors before denying aid, including the destruction of homes and infrastructure, residents’ insurance coverage and income levels and the fiscal resources of the state. It determined the Caldor fire “was not of such severity and magnitude to warrant the designation of the Individual Assistance program,” spokesman Victor Inge wrote in an email.

But residents of Grizzly Flats, a rural community in the western Sierra Nevada where the fire destroyed an estimated two-thirds of the housing stock, along with the town’s water system, say that makes no sense. They fear the government’s calculations were skewed by wealthy neighboring areas such as El Dorado Hills and Lake Tahoe, obscuring the true reality of the fire’s impact.

“Just because we reside within the borders of El Dorado County doesn’t mean we are rich,” Tyler said.

The California Office of Emergency Services agreed in a letter appealing the denial, pointing out that predisaster unemployment in Grizzly Flats was more than four times the national rate.

For the last five months, Tyler, 39, has been living with her husband and two children, 3 and 14, in a travel trailer parked in Tyler’s brother’s frontyard in Placerville.

A woman folds laundry in her family's trailer.
Candance Tyler folds clothes in her family’s trailer in Placerville, where she has lived since the Caldor fire destroyed her family’s 500-acre ranch in Grizzly Flats.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

“Imagine falling asleep to crickets and frogs every night and now you’re falling asleep to the sounds of the highway and sirens,” Tyler said. “It’s been a real culture shock for sure.”

Tyler estimates it could be two years before they are able to rebuild, and months before they can even park the trailer on their property.

Even though her family had insurance and owned the property outright, she estimates they are $100,000 to $200,000 short of being able to rebuild what they had. They also lost about a million dollars’ worth of timber, which was not covered by insurance.

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Even worse, she said, were the items on which no price could be put. The ranch had been in Tyler’s husband’s family for generations — the local school, Walt Tyler Elementary, was named after an uncle — and they had many artifacts dating back to the pioneer days, including antique oxen rings, blacksmith bellows, cradles and leatherbound Tom Sawyer books.

“We lost our home, everything we loved and all our history,” she said.

And yet Tyler considers herself one of the lucky ones. Her neighbor’s home was uninsured because her policy had been canceled four times due to fire risk, she said.

“Insurance was very hard to get,” Tyler said. “And people who had insurance were afraid to up their coverage because everybody was getting canceled.”

A man sits in a chair, facing the opposite direction.
Tobe Magidson attends a remembrance event to mark the 6-month anniversary of the Caldor fire. Magidson is living with his girlfriend and daughters, 15, and 16, in a trailer on their burned property in Grizzly Flats.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

A neighbor, Tobe Magidson, 45, was dropped by his insurer three years before the fire because his property, like all those in the ranch areas of Grizzly Flats, had no hydrants.

He’d tried to guard his home against flames, clearing defensible space and cutting fire breaks, but it didn’t matter. The night of Aug. 17, he watched the fire move a quarter-mile in three and a half minutes as it came roaring into the town. About 40 minutes after Magidson fled with his girlfriend — his son and daughter, 14 and 15, had evacuated the day before — his home was destroyed.

“I worked my whole life to provide this for my kids and it got ripped away in a night,” he said. “They’re getting a very tough lesson that life isn’t fair, that’s for sure.”

Magidson founded a group called the Grizzly Flats Rebuild Coalition, which is working with the county and Board of Supervisors to help residents cut through red tape that can make rebuilding difficult. He also formed an LLC to try to start milling some of the lumber harvested from burned properties so he can provide lower-cost materials to community members and hopefully finance his own rebuild.

But he feels the federal government should also be a partner in the process.

“Right now, what we should have is FEMA trailers and people back on their properties and back in school and back to life,” he said. “And when it comes time for the rebuild process, FEMA should be here to help people out, especially the ones that had their insurance canceled or denied.”

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Hannah Hammonds sits on the dirt driveway on her family's property in Grizzly Flats.
When Hannah Hammonds called her insurance provider to file a claim following a wildfire that destroyed her home, she learned her mortgage company hadn’t been paying the $6,000-a-year premium.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
Pandora Hammonds, 9, holds a piece of melted aluminum on their family's property in Grizzly Flats.
(Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times)

Hannah Hammonds was forced to leave most of her possessions behind so she could evacuate her newborn, her daughters, 9 and 12; 16 chickens, two dogs and a cat. Her husband was deployed with the U.S. Army and she’d just given birth a week before.

When Hammonds, 29, called her insurance provider to file a claim, she learned her mortgage company hadn’t been paying the $6,000-a-year premium.

She and her family are currently living in a trailer on her parents’ property in nearby Pollock Pines. They are consulting with an attorney but in the meantime are hesitant to make plans.

Hammonds and her husband had saved up for years to buy their first home, a tranquil spot where they could watch deer gather in the frontyard. Now, she visits the property two or three times a week and sits on a hill overlooking the rubble.

A young girl walks over a burnt tree.
Pandora Hammonds, 9, climbs on a Red cedar that was burned on the land where her house once stood in Grizzly Flats.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

“It’s like, what do I do?” she said. “Everything is uprooted. I lost everything.”

FEMA’s Individuals and Households Program provides for grants totaling up to $75,800 to assist uninsured or underinsured disaster survivors with things such as home and vehicle repairs and replacement, medical expenses and the replacement of personal property. The agency also offers rental assistance on which there is no cap.

In order for residents to be eligible, the governor must request the assistance and the president must approve it. The White House bases its decision on a recommendation from FEMA, representatives said.

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FEMA, in turn, forms its recommendation based on the Stafford Act of 1988, which dictates how the U.S. government responds to disasters, and the Code of Federal Regulations, which spells out the criteria for evaluating a governor’s request for a major disaster declaration.

The principal factors are the amount of uninsured home and personal property losses and the fiscal capacity of the state in which the disaster took place, which are calculated as a ratio. The higher the estimated cost of providing assistance and the lower a state’s total taxable receipts, the more likely a state is to be approved for assistance.

That puts California at a relative disadvantage from the start, as its economy is larger than any other U.S. state and most countries.

A man sifts through burnt debris
Ali Baron sorts through debris in the community of Grizzly Flats.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

At the same time, there are no exact thresholds for what metrics a disaster must meet in order to qualify — the Stafford Act prohibits apportioning assistance solely using income- or population-based mathematical formulas — which has helped fuel complaints that the process is inconsistent and difficult to understand.

“It’s very opaque,” said Trisha Cumbra, who partnered with a Center for Economic and Policy Research data analyst to research and write a Times op-ed criticizing the program after her family home burned. “There are certain factors that say you’re more likely to be approved, like socioeconomics, disability status and the proportion of elderly and children. But then it’s totally contradicted by FEMA’s past practice.”

In a letter appealing the denial, California Office of Emergency Services Director Mark Ghilarducci pointed out that nine other disasters approved for individual assistance in 2021 cumulatively destroyed fewer homes than the Caldor fire. They included severe winter storms in Oklahoma and Louisiana; floods and landslides in Kentucky; storms, tornadoes and flooding in Alabama, Tennessee and Michigan; and floods in West Virginia, which altogether destroyed 319 homes, according to FEMA data compiled by Cal OES.

The Caldor fire alone destroyed 412 primary residences, 82% of which were insured, according to FEMA. The state contends the fire actually destroyed 594 primary residences, as well as 191 other homes, and that due to a widening gap in home values between Grizzly Flats and El Dorado County as a whole, nearly all of the residents were underinsured.

“As insurance policies are tied to the valuation of the residence, this gap in home value is directly correlated to survivors having drastically insufficient coverage to remain in El Dorado County,” Ghilarducci wrote. “If survivors are unable to rebuild or relocate nearby, the recovery of Grizzly Flats remains bleak.”

Metal chairs amid the burnt remnants of a church.
Rows of metal chairs are all that remains of Grizzly Flats Community Church.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
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When Marilyn Brown, 51, returned to her property to survey the damage, the scene reminded her of black-and-white warzone photos she’d seen in textbooks. Her husband Bill is pastor of Grizzly Flats Community Church, which was reduced to little more than rows of metal chair frames atop a pile of debris.

“Because of the ash and the burned out trees and everything, there was almost no color,” she said. “One of the things that surprised me was how silent it was. Because before, you could hear the squirrels and the birds. The first day we went back there was nothing.”

That was Sept. 13, the same day President Biden took an aerial tour of the damage, she said.

“Our family waved to the helicopters because it was kind of cool,” she said. “And then the media quoted him as saying that there would be FEMA help and there wasn’t.”

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have called on the federal government to reconsider its decision to deny individual aid, with Democratic Sens. Alex Padilla and Dianne Feinstein submitting a letter supporting the state’s appeal. Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Elk Grove) also sent a series of letters to Biden calling for a reversal.

“It’s unacceptable that Caldor Fire survivors were denied federal assistance as they rebuild their homes and lives,” Padilla said in a statement.

A young girl climbs atop a massive tree stump
Pandora Hammonds, 9, right, looks into a burnt Red Cedar stump on her family’s property in Grizzly Flats.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Padilla has introduced legislation to amend the Stafford Act, which a statement from his office described as having been written when FEMA primarily focused on hurricanes, tornadoes and floods.

The bill would require FEMA to brief Congress on the consistency of assistance in response to wildfires and explain how the agency handles the unique damage that results, including repairing and mitigating contamination from melted infrastructure.

A second bill he authored would establish an Office of Civil Rights, Equity, and Inclusion within FEMA, in a bid to improve the quality of disaster assistance for marginalized and underserved communities.

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In the meantime, Rick Lower and his wife, Mary Ann Cook, suffer from the same recurring nightmare. They’re asleep in their Grizzly Flats home, orange flames creeping closer. They approach the bedroom window, and suddenly the fire is inside.

Lower, a disabled U.S. Coast Guard veteran who has post-traumatic stress, said the fire has made it worse.

“I’ve seen a lot of death in my career, but this is something I never expected to make me feel like this,” he said. “It’s like a piece of your life is gone and you can never get it back.”

He and his wife are still trying to decide whether to rebuild. Their insurance covered the remainder of their home loan but there was nothing left over. They can’t afford to purchase anything close to what they had elsewhere in the county — the prices of acreage properties have skyrocketed as the COVID-19 pandemic sent more remote workers into rural areas seeking space.

A woman walks among charcoaled trees,  surveying fire damage
Candance Tyler walks past what is left of the Grizzy Flats Post Office.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Both get teary when they talk about their lost home, a chalet-style cottage on 30 acres filled with hundreds of old-growth cedars and lined with hiking trails.

They spent tens of thousands of dollars clearing brush around the property, graveling their driveway and even installing a concrete roof. It was supposed to be a place for them to grow old together.

They’ve found themselves unable to move on, haunted by questions about how the fire was able to wreak so much destruction and why there isn’t more government help to assist them.

“If there was a reason for it all we could deal with it but we can’t get any closure,” Lower said. “I’m 65 and I have to start all over again.”

Times staff photographer Francine Orr contributed to this report.