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'Looking at bare ground'

"They're going back and looking at a bare piece of ground."

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | November 3, 2003

"The needs in the fire areas are great and the after-effects of this disaster will be significant."

—Rev. Amanda G. Rutherford May

"They're going back and looking at a bare piece of ground."

As thousands of fire survivors went home Monday, that's how Dick Eskes described what some of them will face.

A Church World Service Disaster Response and Recovery Liaison, Eskes is working with clergy, interfaith groups and voluntary agencies in southern California to plan a long-term recovery.

By Monday morning, he said, 3,452 homes had burned.

"One thing with a fire that's so difficult is that often nothing is salvageable," he said. "These homes are burnt right down to the ground."

It's not the million-dollar resort homes portrayed in recent news television footage either, he added. "There is a concentration of low-income people in San Diego County people of Mexican descent who moved to the U.S. and are working as laborers."

Another vulnerable population in San Diego is homeless people, many of whom have fled overcrowded shelters as evacuees flowed in.

Episcopal Community Services (ECS) is focusing on ministering to the homeless.

"The needs in the fire areas are great and the after-effects of this disaster will be significant," said the Rev. Amanda G. Rutherford May, executive director of ECS. "In addition to those who lost their homes, we are very concerned about the people here who are not 'eligible' for relief services because they were already homeless."

Eskes said he also anticipated needs on Indian reservations affected by the fires.

The California Office of Emergency Services is opening seven assistance centers, Eskes added, and Federal Emergency Management Agency inspectors were conducting property damage assessments.

At the Judson Baptist Church in San Bernardino, one church member agreed that it's not just million-dollar homes that have burned. "Homes that were middle class were lost," she said. "Members of our own church family lost their home, only two miles from the church."

The church offers a ministry developed before the fires in which people can come to the church to eat on Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Since the fires began, the church has seen an influx of people in need of meals.

As the emergency phase of the fires ends, long-term needs will surface, Eskes said. "The process is slow in getting recovery committees together," he explained, because many fire areas aren't yet accessible.

And the fires aren't over, he pointed out. "We lost another hundred homes yesterday."

Many people also lost their transportation, he said, and will find it difficult to visit recovery centers.

Cool weather, rain and even snow arrived in California over the weekend, helping firefighters get a better handle on blazes Monday. Firefighters expected to contain fires by midweek.

Most mandatory evacuation orders were lifted by Monday afternoon.

But many, as Eskes said, went home to ruins. In the Waterman Canyon area of San Bernardino, for example, six of about 60 houses survived.

But 13 days of raging infernos have left future hazards: new dangers of landslides, mudslides, flash flooding and unhealthy air pollution.

More than 100,000 people were forced to flee their homes as the fires exploded through tinder-dry forests. The blazes killed 22 people.

More than 750,000 acres burned.

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