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Burners Without Borders Ends Effort To House Fire Survivors In Santa Rosa

By Christi Warren The Press Democrat, Santa Rosa, Calif.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Burning Man shipping containers, on loan from a camp in the annual arts and music festival, were brought from Nevada to an industrial lot in southwest Santa Rosa in an effort house victims of the Santa Rosa fires. However, permit issues and a lack of funding turned out to be too big of a hurdle.

The Press Democrat, Santa Rosa, Calif.

A plan to house up to 75 people displaced by October's wildfires in converted shipping containers on loan from Burning Man has come to an end, with organizers citing difficulty in navigating Santa Rosa's permitting process and a related inability to secure funding.

Burners Without Borders, an international disaster relief group, trucked the seven converted containers to Santa Rosa at the end of October, just as firefighters were nearing full containment of the blazes.

The idea, said Carmen Mauk, co-founder of Burners Without Borders, was that the metal containers -- designed like tiny homes with beds, shelves, electrical wiring and mini fridges -- could be of use to people in immediate need of housing.

Organizers originally were reserving the spaces for teachers, first responders and those in the medical field, but as the permitting process dragged on and those groups found housing, the focus changed to support local laborers, Mauk said.

"It's just really discouraging," she said of the scuttled plans.

The case reflects the hurdles that face some smaller aid efforts in setting up temporary housing within the city in the wake of the fires. A separate trailer camp established by a Santa Rosa contractor for his debris cleanup workers received special dispensation this week from the city after running into permit issues that could have cost him up to $10,000 a day in fines.

The Burning Man shipping containers, on loan from a camp in the annual arts and music festival, were brought from Nevada to an industrial lot in southwest Santa Rosa owned by cannabis entrepreneur Dennis Hunter, founder of the cannabis manufacturing firm CannaCraft. Hunter was providing the space next to CannaCraft for free.

"It seemed like it was going to be just really a godsend to get these trailers in and provide housing because at the time, there were a bunch of people just camped out at Dillon Beach and people really with just nowhere to go," Hunter said.

Organizers began applying for permitting from the city on Oct. 31. Within three weeks, the application was reviewed and returned to Burners Without Borders with comments, said Jesse Oswald, permit intake manager for the city's Planning and Economic Development Department.

That's when the group was made aware of the regulatory hurdles it faced, Mauk said. An architect was needed to certify the containers, built in Nevada, were up to California's codes, she said. The shipping containers' doors needed to have windows installed, and a streetlight needed to be placed in the vicinity of the otherwise industrial area, she said.

While organizers got to work tackling those issues, volunteers worked to ready the makeshift village, dubbed Camp Oasis, installing artificial grass, plumbing and an 80-foot-by-30-foot party tent meant as a communal dining space.

While other private groups contacted Santa Rosa about bringing in temporary housing, none were so far in the process as the Burners Without Borders project, said Oswald, who voiced surprise Wednesday that the project was ending. The city had given its final questions back to organizers and was awaiting their response.

"To actually come in and make an application, this is the only group to submit an application to do anything," he said. "... It was in its final stages."

The shipping containers were only ever meant to be in place until August, when they would return to the Burning Man camp, on the playa of Black Rock City, Mauk said.

As organizers were working their way through the permit process, they also applied for funding, requesting $80,000 from the North Bay Fire Relief fund overseen by Redwood Credit Union. Applications for nonprofit recipients were due Dec. 11.

At the end of January, organizers learned they did not get the grant money. They had raised $30,000 on their own to pay for utilities, upgrades required by the city and a stipend for an on-site camp host. But the funding gap was too much to continue forward with the project, said Mauk, whose Santa Rosa rental home burned down in the fires.

"This was becoming more unwieldy of a project than we ever thought it would be," she said.

Robin McKenzie, senior vice president of marketing and communications for Redwood Credit Union, said the grant request was denied because the camp lacked the necessary city permits. In all, McKenzie said, 56 nonprofits received grants totaling $7 million from the North Bay Fire Relief fund, set up in partnership with state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg and The Press Democrat.

"They were not ready to go in terms of the permit process so what that would ask us to do is grant funds based on an unapproved project, and we have a responsibility to our donors to make sure those funds are being allocated to the greatest needs of our community at the time," McKenzie said. "That's not to say that the project isn't or wasn't a good project. We're saying it wasn't ready to go."

To date, more than $32 million has been donated to the fund, with more than $19 million going directly to people who lost homes or experienced economic hardship because of the fires.

Mauk said that in its application, the group requested funding "pending permitting."

This past weekend, workers dismantled the village: removing its donated bedding, it's brand new pillows, all the kitchen accouterments required to feed 75 people -- microwaves, toaster ovens, barbecue grills. All items were redistributed to other organizations serving fire victims, Mauk said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has been operating similar temporary housing at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, though that has been in surprisingly low demand. By January, just 189 of the 3,200 applicants eligible for temporary housing said they needed it, according to FEMA. Officials did not provide an update this week on how many fire survivors were living at the fairgrounds.

But Mauk said her team was hoping to help those ineligible for such government help.

"For most people who were underinsured renters, or not insured folks working in the vineyards or as farm workers, they're not going to apply for FEMA," Mauk said. "So we were really filling the gap."

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