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CA rebuilding long after wildfires

Progress made on replacing homes after San Diego County wildfires, but other needs remain

BY KATE SAAVEDRA | TUCSON, AZ | December 10, 2009

San Diego County, CA, residents are still recuperating from widespread wildfires that burned 1,775 homes in Oct. 2007, but efforts are shifting focus to long-term recovery and disaster prevention.

“There’s less and less people actually actively working in the (active) disaster now because it’s all about case management and unmet needs at this point,” said Robin Clegg, facilitator for the regional long-term recovery committee. “We’re close to having met our goals as far as assisting families.”

For those whose homes haven’t been repaired, the regional long-term recovery committee works to meet their needs by bringing together organizations with donated dollars to fund rebuilds. Survivors who don’t have other means, like insurance settlements or loans, are considered for assistance.

“Probably the largest struggle for families has been the insurance issue,” said Clegg.

In San Diego County, $3 million in donations have gone toward volunteer efforts to rebuild for those who don’t have the money or resources to do it, said Clegg.

The regional community recovery team works with faith-based and secular organizations, including Mennonite Disaster Services, United Methodists, the American Red Cross, Elderhelp, Habitat for Humanity, Jewish Family Services, The San Diego Foundation, The Salvation Army, United Way and others.

Volunteers are continuing to provide aid to survivors in several southern California communities, including:

La Jolla Reservation

The regional long-term recovery committee also continues to collaborate with the Intertribal Long-Term Recovery Foundation, a disaster preparedness, response and long-term recovery cooperative among nine of the 18 Native American tribes in San Diego County.

“For a tribe, especially a small tribe, it’s (disasters) something they hope doesn’t happen, but because they try to provide so many other services for their people that it’s often low on the list of priorities,” said Theresa Gregor. Gregor works with the Intertribal Long-Term Recovery Foundation and with the La Jolla Band of Luiseño Indians as the American Red Cross case management liaison for the disaster recovery team.

Native Americans are among those most severely impacted by the fires in San Diego County. The Poomacha fire scorched roughly 92 percent of the La Jolla Reservation. They lost 40 homes - the most of all area reservations. Flooding from a severe storm several weeks later destroyed one more house. About 2,000 acres of the Santa Ysabel Reservation burned. No houses were destroyed, but other buildings were damaged.

More than 70 percent of those who lost their homes didn’t have insurance. The San Diego Foundation, Jewish Family Services and others helped fund the rebuilds on the La Jolla Reservation. Other area reservations helped La Jolla meet the required 25 percent match for FEMA funding, as well as providing modular homes for survivors.

Thirty-nine homes have been rebuilt, with 37 completed about 10 months after the fire, so the foundation’s focus is now disaster mitigation. The intertribal recovery committee worked with the United Church of Christ and Church World Service to raise future preparedness.

“Together we (UCC and CWS) provided ‘go-packs’ in case of evacuation for young children, elderly, people with disabilities and provided some of the inserts, like flashlights, batteries, filter masks,” said Florence Coppola, executive for national disaster ministry for UCC.

The backpack kits were assembled and distributed by a high school class from the Santa Ysabel Reservation.

CWS and its partners also provided generators to alleviate power-outages.

The intertribal foundation caters not only to basic needs, but focuses on individual needs. They held a family weekend at the La Jolla campground where survivors could get services like a back massage or family photographs taken, just so they could have something to put on the walls of their new homes, said Adam Geisler from the intertribal foundation.

It’s important for survivors to feel like they have things of their own, said Geisler. The Southern Baptist Convention sifted through the ashes of La Jolla Reservation homes in the aftermath of the fire to search for survivor’s personal items.

“I remember they found an old coffee cup for my grandma – she was just happy she had something,” said Geisler.


South of the La Jolla Reservation, Ramona, CA, was also heavily affected, with 1,125 homes destroyed and another 77 damaged. Only about 25 percent of them have been rebuilt.

The Ramona Fire Recovery Center and others in the region will close by the end of the year. Funded by a two-year operational grant which will run out by mid-December, the volunteer-run center has served Ramona survivors by providing support groups, insurance workshops and counseling.

After the center closes, the programs will continue on a volunteer-basis, said Bonnie Fry of the Ramona Fire Recovery Center.

“That doesn’t mean that the work stops, because there’s still case management going on, but the physical buildings, because there’s not so many people coming through the door,” said Clegg, fiscal manager for the five of the seven recovery centers, including Ramona.


Almost 50 miles south in Dulzura, Calif., Mennonite Disaster Service volunteers rebuild damaged homes.

Ralph and Carolyn Metzler, project directors for the rebuilds in Dulzura have been heading up the endeavor for about two months. They’ll stay until mid-December and expect to have completed 10 houses by then.

The husband-and-wife duo from Ohio have worked on rebuilding houses for about 15 years, four of those for survivors of Hurricane Katrina.

The Harris fire claimed 253 homes. So far, MDS has started 29 rebuilds and completed 25 in Dulzura, said Brian Pipkin, MDS communications coordinator. Clegg said the regional long-term recovery committee has collaborated with MDS for 15 rebuilds in San Diego County.

“Usually after two to five years, it’s time to move on, let the local communities pick up the pieces that are left,” said Ralph.

Communities in San Diego County differ in their needs and Clegg said the regional long-term recovery committee continues their goal of “bringing agencies together to work cooperatively for the common good of the fire survivors.”

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