“It’ll be there. Titanium doesn’t melt,” his son, Jeremy, said as they drove to the house.
“But the fire was so hot, everything else is going to be dust,” Michael said.
Following behind them were members of their church. A dozen people worried about Michael, a 61-year-old man with a booming voice who had once hosted pool parties and volleyball contests at his home, but had grown quiet and withdrawn in the past year after his wife fell ill and died.
They drove through the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, past the dense pine trees that looked suddenly ominous and overgrown. “This whole place is just turning into a tinderbox,” Michael said.
Their street, Mount Olive Road, was lined with charred remnants of cars and houses, all destroyed in August by what came to be known as the River Fire. When they parked and got out, smoke from a wildfire miles away caught in their throats. Pieces of ash were drifting down in clumps.
“It’s bad today with the ash,” Jeremy said. “Kind of claustrophobic.”
This was the road where Michael had lived for most of his life, where Jeremy, 40, had grown up, and where both men had worked every day making granite countertops. It had always felt safe to them. But a map filed away in a county office told a different story: The local emergency management department had traced Mount Olive in brown highlighter, singling it out as a place highly likely to burn in a wildfire. The county wanted to clear away dry grass and thin the trees to reduce this risk. That work can cost millions of dollars, and so in 2018, Grass Valley applied for a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Then came a record-breaking wildfire season, and then an even bigger one, and when the fires started again this summer, the county was still awaiting FEMA’s decision.
As natural disasters worsen, President Biden is directing FEMA to shift more of its efforts to preventing them. This work was always a small part of the agency’s role, but now Biden has committed an unprecedented $5 billion in new funding to minimize future disasters, and Congress designated several billion dollars more in its recently passed infrastructure bill.
A review of internal FEMA data obtained by The Washington Post, however, shows how difficult such a shift might be. Of the $11 billion FEMA has allocated for this program over the past decade, only $1.5 billion has been spent. The vast majority of the money is caught up in bureaucratic delays that leave counties waiting years to get started on what they describe as urgently needed work. In the case of the Mount Olive Road project, FEMA moved the proposal into the final stages of review this fall, almost four years after the county first applied. By then, the River Fire had jumped the road and burned down 140 buildings, including Michael’s house and granite workshop.
Since the fire, Michael had been ruminating over all the things he left behind when he evacuated. He hadn’t wanted to come back, but Jeremy hoped the wedding band might bring him some peace.
Before they walked up to what was left of Michael’s home, the group stood in a circle and prayed. “We know that you are a God of comfort, and we hope that we find comfort today,” a man read. “Amen,” Michael said. Someone had brought disposable hazmat suits and he tried to put one on, but it was too small for his 6-foot-7 frame. He put on a cloth mask instead and said he was ready.
For decades, FEMA’s dominant strategy has been to come in after disasters to coordinate cleanup and recovery. This is why the agency was created 40 years ago, but as climate disasters grow more frequent and devastating, FEMA is refocusing on a policy known as mitigation, which involves trying to intervene before catastrophe strikes. In places that flood, it might mean elevating houses. In places prone to hurricanes, it means retrofitting buildings to withstand damaging winds. And in areas vulnerable to wildfire, it means clearing space around homes. Biden is counting on these programs to contain the spiraling expense of federal disasters, which cost an estimated $99 billion last year. “The evidence is overwhelming that every dollar we invest in resilience saves $6 down the road, when the next fire doesn’t spread as widely, or the power station holds up against a storm,” Biden said in September.
How to get the money into communities, though, has been a continuing challenge. A Post analysis found that counties wait an average of seven years to complete their FEMA-funded projects, and that during those waits, applicants for fire mitigation experience an average of three more major wildfires, and applicants for storm mitigation experience two more hurricanes. The Post analysis also found that FEMA is about half as likely to fund grants for rural areas like Grass Valley, and that poor counties and places where White people are a minority face longer delays in getting grants approved.
In its own analysis, the Government Accountability Office found that counties struggled with a “cumbersome” process that entails hundreds of pages of supporting documentation, multiple rounds of review with different FEMA reviewers, and years of requests for additional information. Local officials told The Post they see federal mitigation funding as a last resort. In some cases, workers have threatened to quit if they ever had to deal with the grants again. In other cases, communities have withdrawn applications or opted out of the program after realizing how much staff time it would take, including at least half the California counties that saw wildfires this past summer.
“There’s a lot of money there. But we’ve all kind of shied away because it’s so complex to access,” said Ken Pimlott, chair of the Fire Safe Council for El Dorado County, where one of the biggest wildfires in state history destroyed a thousand buildings. Seventy miles to the east, the North Tahoe Fire Protection District applied for a grant in 2010 to clear space near homes, but FEMA review requirements delayed the project for eight years. “We think we should have been able to get right to work,” Eric Horntvedt, the district’s forest fuels coordinator, said. The district was halfway through the project when the Caldor Fire began burning toward Lake Tahoe in September.
David Maurstad, who runs FEMA’s mitigation program, said grant applications take a while to process because the projects are complex. “Everything we’re doing, we’re doing with the focus of how we can turn seven years into six years into five years,” he said. “As different issues are brought to our attention that need to be addressed, we do what we can to make steady improvement.” He said some policies that frustrate applicants, like the requirement that counties wait on FEMA approval before starting any part of their projects, are necessary to safeguard taxpayer dollars.
Grass Valley decided to apply for a grant because mitigation work “just wouldn’t be possible for a small, rural community without it,” county spokeswoman Taylor Wolfe said. More than 90 percent of homes in the 100,000-person county are classified as “high” or “extremely high risk” for fire, and hundreds of residents have requested help protecting their homes. “There’s a lot of people who are scared to death, and they can’t afford to get a contractor out,” Jamie Jones, executive director of the county Fire Safe Council, said.
Jones helped apply for the $4.8 million FEMA grant in 2018. But her hopefulness faded as years passed without a decision. She and her colleagues sent emails checking on their application. “Do we have any updates?” they wrote. “Our leadership is really interested in progress on this,” they wrote again months later. The responses came back the same: still under review. When Jones saw footage of homes burning in the River Fire, she remembers thinking, “Please let it not be someone who was waiting.” Later, she drove by the ruins of the Goetzes’ house, where her kids had gone to pool parties thrown by Michael and his wife, Wendy, and wondered whether the county could have done more.
The River Fire was the kind most likely to be suppressed by mitigation; it was driven largely by dry vegetation, not wind, and had spread by climbing into densely packed treetops. It started burning toward Mount Olive Road from a campground in the canyon below as Michael and Jeremy were finishing work. “Get out. Just leave now,” they remembered a fireman shouting. As they drove away, they saw a vortex of fire charging up the mountain from the opposite side of the road, and when they awoke the next day, it was to photos their friends had sent them, taken from newscasts, of their home destroyed.
Now, as they prepared to start the search, a man from their church walked around marking the site with yellow caution tape. He roped off the dead trees. The 250-gallon propane tank that smelled of gas. The piles of ash that might contain disintegrated batteries or pieces of asbestos that had been used in the house as flooring. Jeremy managed to get a hazmat suit mostly zipped up, put on a KN95 mask, and, apologizing to the man who had just marked the hazards, stepped over the caution tape. “I’m trying to remember the layout of the house. It’s kind of hard when it’s not here,” Jeremy said.
Michael told him he had kept the wedding band in a glass on the bathroom windowsill, so Jeremy knelt down where he thought the bathroom wall would have been and began to dig. He found a buried slab of the granite shower. At least he was in the right place.
Michael watched from outside the tape. “Jeremy can always find anything,” he said, and soon, Jeremy uncovered a melted glob of glass with a sparkling piece of melted metal embedded inside.
“It’s something gold,” he said, and showed it to his father.
But it wasn’t the ring. “Yeah, I think there were gold earrings on the window ledge,” Michael said, and explained that Wendy had kept her jewelry collection there.
Jeremy went back to the pile. He found more lumps of glass with melted silver and gold inside, examined each one, and put them aside. The church members were looking around, too, calling out what they found. A ball of coins, all melted together. A fireproof box with orange pill bottles containing the medicine that Wendy had taken when she was sick with cancer. The crushed frame of the chair where she had spent her last days.
There was nowhere for Michael to sit but the propane tank, so he sat down amid the gas fumes, thinking about when they first moved in. Wendy had taught art at the grade school down the road, and they had covered the walls with her paintings. In the summer, they rented a shaved ice machine and invited the neighborhood kids over. There was so much Michael wished he’d saved from the fire: the paintings, Wendy’s scrapbooks, the clothes that Jeremy’s sisters had wanted, her jewelry.
Jeremy searched through the rubble until he hit the black dirt underneath. His hazmat suit had split and plumes of ash were falling onto his lower back. His mask was broken, dangling from one ear. “I think we’ve done enough, Jeremy,” Michael said. “Who knows, it might have been so hot that it melted.”
“All right,” Jeremy called back, but he stayed where he was and picked up a sieve he had brought to sift the wreckage more finely. He was coughing and rubbing at his red eyes. He lifted a piece of sheet metal and found something that looked like a ring, but when he picked it up, he saw it was just a steel washer. “Dang it,” he said.
At the other side of the ash heap, someone called, “I found something.” They had unearthed a set of utensils, gray and rust-colored from the fire. Michael smiled when he saw the discovery. “That’s our wedding silverware,” he said.
Michael held the silverware as they walked back to the cars. He paused in front of the granite shop, where something had exploded and bent the warehouse doors outward. The others gathered in front of him. “I appreciate you all coming and helping,” he said.
“Oh, we love you, Mike,” one of the men said.
Michael explained that Wendy had picked the silverware out with her artist’s eye. It was delicate, with ornate roses looping down the handles. “We used it every day for 41 years,” he said. He rubbed the soot off one of the forks and held it up.
“Look, you can see the roses here,” he said.
A week later, after hearing the county would be coming soon to start clearing debris, Michael and Jeremy decided to try again, just the two of them. They arrived better prepared, with hiking boots and perfectly fitting hazmat suits. And this time, instead of watching from the sidelines, Michael went into the ash pile. Wondering whether the bathroom walls might have tipped over backward as they collapsed, he began searching beyond the footprint of the house, and almost immediately, he saw a chunk of glass with a dark shape within it. “I think I found it,” he shouted.
Jeremy headed toward him, but before he could get there, Michael grabbed a shovel and shattered the glass, and there was the ring, blackened and rough, but intact. He held it in his palm.
“Look at that,” he said.
A few days later, a truck of workers showed up at the property in white-and-green protective gear and spread out looking for toxic materials to haul away. “Jackpot right here,” one of them called, and waved the others over to four disintegrated car batteries that needed to be carefully lifted into bags and sealed in a plastic barrel. They emptied the propane tank Michael had used as a seat and spray-painted pink Xs over the pockets of asbestos. One pulled out a rubber gripper to lift up a piece of sheet metal roofing. “That stuff will cut you like a knife,” he said. The crew leader wrote down their findings on a clipboard: seven batteries, one and a half gallons of toxic chemicals, 1,770 square feet of asbestos. The county estimated it would cost $100,000 to clear the property, most of which would be paid by FEMA — not with funds from its mitigation program, but through its much larger recovery operation.
By midmorning, the leader announced, “We’re rolling out.” The men drove to the next home, searched it and kept moving along Mount Olive Road. It was a slow process and a hazardous one that would go on for months, and as they continued their work, Michael was sitting in Jeremy’s kitchen one afternoon at the granite counter they had built together. He was wearing the ring, which he had cleaned and tried to polish.
“All the time I spent looking for it. It was probably meant for you to find,” Jeremy said.
Michael nodded and turned the ring around and around on his finger. “Remember how the fire department had that guy racing down the street, yelling at us?” he said. “It was like, ‘This can’t be happening.’ ”
“Yeah, seriously,” Jeremy said. “The smoke was just coming right straight toward us.”
“If I’d known the fire was going to take the house out, I could’ve gotten the water pump going,” Michael said. “You kind of imagine if you’d stayed back, maybe you could have saved everything.”
Jeremy listened, not sure what to say. His home was deep in the woods, surrounded by dry grass and sloping tree branches. Like his father’s property, this one also appeared on the map in the county file, some yards away from another road the grant application said needed urgent mitigation work. The country roads were covered now with handmade signs advertising tree-trimming services, but Jeremy didn’t have money for that. Instead, in his own version of mitigation, he had bought a chain saw to cut back the low branches and looped a garden hose over the roof.
Michael was quiet for a moment and then began describing a dream he’d had the night before. “I’m going back in the house and looking around and nothing’s burned. And it’s like, ‘What is going on?’ ” he said.
“Better not to think about the past,” Jeremy said finally. “Don’t even think about tomorrow. Certain things, you just don’t have control over them.”
About this story: The Post reviewed FEMA’s hazard mitigation assistance projects and disaster declarations data to analyze costs, timing, and recurrence of disasters. Details on The Post’s methodology, as well as summarized county-level data, can be found on GitHub.