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Scorched cars and free bus rides in fire's aftermath

Ninna Gaensler-Debs
A burnt out car at the Journey's End Mobile Home Park in Santa Rosa

The North Bay fires — on top of claiming lives, homes, and businesses — also claimed vehicles. Crosscurrents host Hana Baba talked with KALW's transportation reporter Eli Wirtschafter about next steps for people who lost their cars in the wildfires.

What do we know about how many vehicles were destroyed?

There’s still a lot we don’t know. Up to this point it’s taken so much effort to fight the fires and keep people safe, that officials haven’t yet done a full damage assessment that includes vehicles.

But if you look at photos or videos of some of the worst hit neighborhoods, you see lots of burnt-out cars sitting in the driveways. Now some people have multiple cars, and they could have escaped with one of them, and left others behind.

If a lot of people had no transportation at all, you’d expect car rental companies in the area to be really busy. So I called around to a few car rental companies in Santa Rosa, and overall they say they’ve seen a lot of extra business, but they’re not totally maxed out. So car loss isn’t so widespread that it’s impossible to rent a car in town.

If your car is destroyed in a wildfire, what kind of relief can you get?

The type of insurance that covers fires is called physical-damage coverage. It costs on average $100 a year and it’s not required in California. So some people are insured, some aren’t. People who are on a tight budget are less likely to opt for it, especially if they’re driving older cars.

Some insurance can cover damage related to smoke, and some insurance covers a rental until you can replace a car.

AAA has received more than 600 claims for vehicles damaged or destroyed in the fire. And State Farm has received more than a thousand auto claims in the last two weeks related to California fires. AAA and State Farm are the two biggest auto insurers in the state.

What if you’re not covered by insurance?

If you’re not covered, you might still be able to get a low-interest loan or direct payment from the federal government. That’s a long and complicated process, but it starts with registering with FEMA as soon as possible. You have to prove vehicle ownership, and show that you were denied full insurance coverage. A FEMA spokesperson wouldn’t even hazard a guess of how long the whole process can take — it really varies. 

Sounds like it could be a lot of paperwork.

It’s especially hard if all your documentation has just been incinerated along with your house. Governor Brown made it a little easier by issuing an emergency proclamation which allows fire victims in Sonoma to replace drivers licenses, ID cards, and vehicle registration documents without the usual DMV fees. But there’s no emergency proclamation that can get you out of waiting in line at the DMV.

For people who can’t afford to rent a car, or can’t drive, what options do they have for transportation?

All the public transit agencies I contacted are currently offering free rides. That includes the new SMART Train that runs from Marin through Santa Rosa and to the Sonoma airport. Golden Gate Transit is also giving free rides in and out of Sonoma County.

In Santa Rosa, the CityBus is running shuttles between shelters and hospitals and the local assistance center.

And the CityBus in particular has been helping out since the very beginning. An official there told me that on the night of the fire, bus drivers went out starting at 3 am and drove all night long into areas that were on fire. They evacuated people to hospitals and shelters. Apparently some drivers reported for duty in the middle of the night, even before they were called in to help.

Are people using Lyft and Uber?

Yes, and they’re offering some free services too. Uber has provided more than 400 free rides to and from shelters, and Lyft is also offering free rides to and from evacuation sites and hospitals.

And for all of us who are not directly in the fire zone — has all the smoke in the air affected transportation?

Personally as someone who bikes a lot, my fuel is fresh air. And when air quality is bad and we’re not supposed to be exercising outside, I’ve definitely been biking less, taking transit more, or just staying home.

You can file an insurance claim with FEMA at www.disasterassistance.gov.

Email Eli Wirtschafter at transportation@kalw.org.

Crosscurrents Transportation