Thousands of cars destroyed in Northern California during the October wildfires are being identified and having their state records updated this month as part of an effort spearheaded by the California Department of Motor Vehicles in partnership with local law enforcement agencies.
The DMV announced Thursday it hopes by the end of this month to have finished examining an estimated 4,000 destroyed vehicles burned during the fires, most of them in Sonoma County. DMV investigators are working with the CHP, the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office and the Santa Rosa Police Department on the operation, which began Jan. 11 at the direction of state emergency officials.
“This is kind of an unprecedented task,” said Marty Greenstein, a DMV spokesman. “To my knowledge, we’ve never dealt with this many burned vehicles before. We want to get it done as soon as possible, just to make sure that all the vehicles are properly marked and recorded to prevent fraud.”
As authorities examine the burned cars and update state records, one of their goals is to head off fraudulent duplication of car titles, according to the DMV.
Many of the cars encountered by investigators are so badly burned they don’t have any of their most identifying features, such as license plate numbers, but investigators are trained to make up for that. They might be able to discern the make and model of the car, then check records to see if a car with those characteristics was registered for that address, Greenstein said.
After the car has been inspected, it’s marked with spray paint by the DMV to indicate it can be cleared from the burn site.
Often, the state has already recorded the vehicle as a total loss. DMV officials were available at local assistance centers after the fires, where car owners were able to report if their cars were lost in the fires. Fire victims can also go through their insurance companies, which tell the DMV about the loss.
A number of cars have already been removed from burn sites, but it’s not clear how many in total.
The Santa Rosa Police Department had removed 226 vehicles from public roadways in the city’s burn zones by late December, and 86 were cleared out by insurance companies beforehand, according to Capt. Ray Navarro.
In the unincorporated burned areas, authorities may have also taken some destroyed cars off public roads as part of the repopulation and re-entry process, said Misti Harris, spokeswoman for the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, but she didn’t have specific numbers. “We didn’t track that because we were focused on operations — on just getting the job done and getting people back in their homes,” Harris said.
Cars were also removed in the earlier stages of the debris removal process, but Army Corps of Engineers spokeswoman Nancy Allen said federal officials who oversaw the effort couldn’t estimate how many.
“It’s been dealt with in a variety of ways,” Allen said. “I don’t think anybody has a handle on the overall scope.”
State and federal officials overseeing disaster cleanup typically don’t allow a wrecked car to be taken away without its identifying information recorded first, Greenstein said.