Wildfires strain federal operations in Southern California

Federal agencies are mobilizing to help their employees and other residents who have lost their homes and property in the wildfires burning across Southern California, but they face a number of challenges in locating those who need assistance and keeping their offices up and running.

Kathrene Hansen, executive director of the Greater Los Angeles Federal Executive Board, has been using federal communications networks to issue air quality alerts and direct federal employees who have lost their homes to emergency funds. The board -- one of 28 across the country responsible for helping coordinate federal agencies outside Washington, D.C. -- covers both the Los Angeles and San Diego areas.

Theresa Camiling, chair of the board, is compiling data about how many federal employees have been affected by the fires so relief organizations will have a clearer idea of what assistance is needed. By mid-Wednesday afternoon, the blazes had burnt more than 425,000 acres, destroyed 1,500 homes and forced at least half a million people to take part in the largest evacuation in California history, the Associated Press reported.

Hansen said understaffing and the large geographic area for which she is responsible make the response effort particularly challenging.

"We cover 125,000 federal employees and 230 separate agencies, and I'm a one-person office because my secretary just resigned a couple of weeks ago," she said. "The fact that I am staffed and [have] resources less than Buffalo, New York, is just insane. I have 18 federal buildings. He has one. It's just not equitable, and I'm really feeling that right now."

Hansen said federal agencies in the area are particularly vulnerable because they are understaffed too. If even a small number of employees can't get to work because of the fires, operations will be at risk, she said.

"When you're staffed at bare bones, and you have even 10 percent of your workforce who can't get to work, it's very hard to keep those offices running," she said. "The Southern California [Terminal Radar Approach Control air traffic facility] was wondering, 'can we keep our planes in the air,' because they didn't have enough staff showing up to staff the TRACON. They were able to do it, but they're doing a yeoman's effort."

Carol Chastang, a spokeswoman for the Small Business Administration, said she was not sure how many applications the agency would receive because many evacuees have yet to file claims. But SBA "will work to get money into the hands of these folks swiftly," she said.

Chastang said that homeowners affected by the wildfires can apply for loans of up to $200,000 for damage to real estate properties, and homeowners and renters can apply for loans of up to $40,000 for damage to personal property.

All businesses can apply to SBA for as much as $1.5 million in loans to compensate for the damage of property and equipment, and small businesses can also apply for up to $1.5 million in economic injury disaster loans, which are designed to make up losses sustained because of the dislocation of clients and customers.

"Our biggest concern is simply that we don't know, we don't have good numbers, we don't know exactly how many have been affected," said Anna Vredeveld, development director for the Federal Employee Education and Assistance Fund, a nonprofit founded by federal employee groups to provide scholarships and emergency assistance to civilian federal employees. "We're getting our word out to federal employees that if they have a need, please contact us."

For now, most information is coming in by word of mouth, Vredeveld said. "We heard from the Drug Enforcement Agency that seven employees have lost their homes, two Federal Bureau of Investigation employees have lost their home . . . Obviously, there's many, many more," she said.

DEA has opened up its San Diego Field Division offices to house displaced DEA employees. The agency has deployed more than 100 agents and is preparing to distribute food, clothing, firefighting supplies and toys for children in the San Diego area.

The Federal Employee Education and Assistance Fund has set up a California fire fund to provide immediate help to any federal employee who needs it, and Vredeveld said she has told the FEB's Hansen that the group is willing and able to station someone in California to write checks directly to federal employees.

Linda Springer, director of the Office of Personnel Management, sent out a notice to department and agency heads on Monday directing them to a July memo on human resource flexibilities they can utilize in emergencies. On Tuesday, Springer issued a memo reminding federal employees that they can make immediate charitable donations to relief organizations.

"In the past, the federal community has repeatedly proved its generosity during times when the need is the greatest," Springer wrote. "I am confident that federal employees will once again answer the call of those in need."

A large number of federal agencies are contributing to the wildfire response effort. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has opened a coordinating office in Pasadena, Calif., to help organize response operations and resources, and is working with California's Emergency Operations Center in Sacramento to compile information and deploy resources.

The Navy and Marine Corps have loaned fire trucks and helicopters, and the National Guard deployed helicopters to Los Alamitos and Mather, Calif. The National Guard also is providing security at evacuation centers and law enforcement support, and is helping to coordinate logistics. The Defense Department sent personnel to Pasadena and to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, to determine if active-duty forces are needed to support fire suppression efforts.

The National Interagency Fire Center has deployed 31 teams of federal firefighters to blaze areas. FEB's Hansen noted that the Los Angeles area is particularly short on federal firefighters.

"When you're totally dependent on mutual aid, the state and local efforts are focused on nonfederal properties and protecting structures," she said, "So the fires on federal property are being dealt with by an understaffed force."

Elizabeth Newell contributed to this report.

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