Mike Mohler, Cal Fire Captain
Sean Scott, Author, The Red Guide To Recovery
Related Story: Chariot Fire 15 Percent Contained
ST. JOHN: That's a fire burning in east county. And many of us are not as prepared as we could be for a disaster. We'll be speaking with a San Diegan who's written a book to help people figure out what to do next after a catastrophe. But first, we'll get an update on the Chariot Fire. Captain Muller, are you there?
MIULLER: Yes, I am.
ST. JOHN: Give us an update.
MIULLER: Right now, we're still at 4,700 acres. 15% containment. We have about 1,600 firefighters assigned to the fire. So far today, the weather has been cooperating. Our biggest fear is possible afternoon winds. So we're just hitting it very aggressively from the ground and the air.
ST. JOHN: So still only about 15% contained. How many people are evacuated, and are you still evacuating more people today?
MIULLER: We are not. The evacuation orders as of now will stand. They run from Highway 79 to old Highway 80. A total of about 35 people were evacuated from the area. 30 of those were campers because most of this area is seasonal cabins.
ST. JOHN: Has anybody lost their home so far?
MIULLER: We have eight confirmed structures that have been destroyed. The San Diego County fire authority damage assessment team has been deployed into the area. I can tell you that number will increase.
ST. JOHN: And of those structures were some of them people's primary residences?
MIULLER: As far as I know, yes. Several of them were.
ST. JOHN: Okay. What's making this fire so difficult to fight?
MIULLER: Well, this area is very unique to the county. This fire started on the dessert floor. It made a run from the dessert floor up to really a mountain community, thousands of feet with very steep canyons. What happens during the warning time, the dessert heat, we get very erratic winds. Then in the afternoon, as the desert cool, we get a wind out of the west dropping to the desert floor. So it made it very difficult when the fire crossed the high yesterday. We saw some very extreme fire behavior.
ST. JOHN: Do you have a prediction for when you might have full containment?
MIULLER: Right now, we're looking at the 14th of July. But we're cautiously optimistic that we can get that day pushed closer to the end of this week.
ST. JOHN: Okay, well, good luck out there.
MIULLER: Thank you very much.
ST. JOHN: That's captain Mike Muller of CAL FIRE. It turns out then that there actually are some people who have lost their homes as a result of this fire. And we're just entering the fire season. So it's an appropriate time to be looking at the preparation. And our guest, Sean Scott, is the author of the red guide to recovery, a resource guide for disaster survivors. Thanks so much for joining us.
SCOTT: Thank you.
ST. JOHN: You are actually a San Diego resident, right?
ST. JOHN: Is this book being made available to people in San Diego? Who's using it so far?
SCOTT: Yes, it's available to not just residents of San Diego, but nationally.
ST. JOHN: So what motivated you to write this book?
SCOTT: Well, are the motivation came primarily after the 2003 and 2007 wildfires where we lost close to 6,000 residences. And hundreds of thousands of people were evacuated during that. And the aftermath was just horrendous. There were scam artists coming from out of state, people didn't know what to do, who to trust, and so people needed a resource, they needed a guide that would walk them through the process and share with them and show them what steps to take to be able to recover and not become a disaster victim.
ST. JOHN: What is your background?
SCOTT: I was a fire restoration contractor. So I was called by companies and fire departments, and companies to go out to homes and restore them, rebuild them.
ST. JOHN: Okay. Start with some of the topics that your book covers. It's 14 chapters. It's pretty comprehensive. You start off with the decisions people have to make immediately after a disaster. What can you tell people about that point in time?
SCOTT: Immediately following a disaster, when the first responders leave, the question that comes up primarily in somebody's mind is what do we do now? And it's a very chaotic, terrible time. There's so much confusion. And you couple that with the lack of knowledge of what to do next, and you're ripe to become victimized by the system or the situation itself or somebody looking to take advantage of you, because most people who lose a home have insurance proceeds to rebuild. And there's a lot of people out there who are after that money.
ST. JOHN: That's right. So maybe we should start with insurance companies. Do you have any tips on what to do or not to do with them?
SCOTT: Well, you want to work with your insurance companies to the best of your ability. And we have a companion resource on our website called the personal property shopper. One of the things they ask you for is a detailed inventory of all your property. If you're staring at nothing but ash, it's difficult to recall. The memory jogger is a spreadsheet that has 6,000 of the most commonly found household items broken down into rooms. Now all you have to do is go through each room and delete what doesn't apply to you and it will complete a very comprehensive inventory, which will help you reach your policy limits for your personal property.
ST. JOHN: A memory jogger! Okay. Where do you store it so it doesn't get destroyed in the fire?
SCOTT: Put it on a flash drive, in a cloud, you can e-mail it to yourself. There's a lot of ways where you can store it.
ST. JOHN: This is so important. We're talking about things we can do to prepare before a disaster happens. And that's one idea. To have a memory jogger. Are there other things we should be doing before that happens?
SCOTT: The book itself is totally unique. Originally it was designed to be a postdisaster recovery tool. Now, what people are realizing is that it's a great resource that will prepare you for recovery. So if you know what the recovery process entails before a disaster strikes, you're going to be far more prepared.
ST. JOHN: Exactly. You are. So making a list of your possessions, but are there other things that you should have in your mind, just a simple list of steps that you should have in your mind if something were to happen?
SCOTT: Yeah, if something were to happen, you want to know where your utilities are shut off, your gas, water, electricity. You want to have a good working knowledge of baseball safety in the event around your home. There's hazardous materials around your home, chemicals, asbestos, lead-based paint, and in a flooding situation, there's mold issues. There's a lot of chapters that go into detail about boil water advisories and rattlesnake bites and different things in our county that we can encounter.
ST. JOHN: Right. I'm thinking about the people after the 2003 and 2007 fires, covering that, and seeing the state of shock people were in when they lost everything, there was a resource center set up for them so they could go to a one stop shop kind of place. But a lot of the assistance from places like FEMA was a long time in coming. Is there any advice you have for dealing with officials there to help?
SCOTT: You want to be prepared in advance of that so you don't have to rely on those officials. Really there's nothing that will be a better recovery resource than having good insurance. That's your first year of defense. And to be resilient to a disaster is to have invested in a good policy with a good agent that will walk you through what you need, what you don't need so that you have resources to rebuild.
ST. JOHN: If you have to relocate, do you have a chapter on tips for people who need to relocate?
SCOTT: We have a chapter about this called displacement and relocation. And it's completely dedicated to that issue itself. In the event of displacement and disaster, if you do have experience, you typically have a portion in your policy that you'll be allowed to move to a similar residence for 1-2 years.
ST. JOHN: I do remember there were some hotels that put their rates up because there were so many people looking for long-term temporary residence. There's really no way around that, is there? Other than perhaps being ready to negotiate upfront.
SCOTT: Well, yeah. One of the things that people were doing in the east county was in lieu of finding a home, sometimes the insurance companies will prorate and figure out how much time it will take you to rebuild. Let's say it's a year of the then they'll calculate what you would have spend in additional living expenses and purchase you a mobile home or something where you can live on-site in a fifth wheel or that type of an RV, and you get to keep it at the end, which is kind of unique.
ST. JOHN: Right. Okay. Now you mentioned the fact that there may be an insurance policy, and there are a lot of people out there looking for that money. Even the City of San Diego ended up getting scammed by debris removers I remember. So what is a homeowner to do to avoid being scammed?
SCOTT: Well, the book really focuses on what we call a triple threat. So immediately after a disaster, Yu going to have people approach you who want to handle your personal property. And let's say there's going to be fire and smoke damage. Then you have the public insurance adjustors who want to represent you against your insurance company for the claim process. Then you have general contractors who want the job of the rebuilding. These are just three entities who are looking for the insurance proceeds to perpetuate their business.
ST. JOHN: What is a public insurance adjustor?
SCOTT: An entity that's licensed by the state, the department of insurance, and they are specifically out there to defend people or help represent them against their insurance companies. They provide a valuable insurance, but it's a timing thing. You don't want to hire one too soon. You may have a good insurance company that's going to pay you the full policy limits, and you don't want to pay a percentage of those proceeds to somebody who may not be of any benefit at that point.
ST. JOHN: So what would you say -- that's a really good tip. Hang on before going out there and getting an insurance adjustor. Are there any things after you get an insurance adjustor?
SCOTT: We have a lot of tips in chapter 9, it just walks the layperson through the process of what to ask them, how to interview them, the difference between a good one and a bad one. Just like any industry, you get good contractors and bad contractors. And you have to do your due diligence. Take your time. Don't fall prey to high-pressure sales tactics, and give your insurance company a chance to perform before you start signing contracts. Once the contracts are signed, after three day, you're locked in. And there's no going back without a fight. So take your time.
ST. JOHN: That sounds like a really valuable piece of advice to remember. And right after a disaster, you're in a very vulnerable state. And you might not be in a position to make very good decisions.
ST. JOHN: So take your time sounds like a really good piece of advice. What about the other scams you were mentioning?
SCOTT: There's unlicensed contractors that descend on disaster areas looking for the board-up, looking to clean up debris, looking to put tarps on roofs, restore power, pull permits, any way they can get in to provide you an immediately needed service so they can entrench themselves and build a relationship. The most vulnerable people are the elderly, and they want to go home. So they tend to be very vulnerable to the high-pressure sales tactics and these types of things that are commonly used to get people to sign contracts, which they don't realize later on are binding. And if they later want to cancel or don't agree to certain pricing, they could be liened, and there could be problems.
ST. JOHN: You were a contractor. So you have some inside insight on these tactics.
SCOTT: Given the fact that a disaster causes so much chaos, you still cannot forego the baseball principles of doing your homework. You look online, the California contractors' state license board. Are they licensed? Do they have any infractions on their license? Are they a local business? Get references. They need to go through a process to make sure the person that you're dealing with is legitimate and is going to take care of you. Of
ST. JOHN: Is there a process that people can turn to if they feel like they have been taken advantage of?
SCOTT: Well, the District Attorney's Office is one avenue. The federal trade commission is another. Local law enforcement. There are some branches of law enforcement that deal with this. There's the California department of insurance that handles insurance fraud issues. So there are a number of entities in the book that are detailed that you can turn to in our chapter about how to avoid disaster scams.
ST. JOHN: One of the chapters I see is recovering valuables, which suggests you've got tips on sifting through the debris and ash. Is there an art to that?
SCOTT: Well, what happens, a lot of times when someone's home is completely destroyed, they're looking at 6 inches of ash, and they may sift around to look for jewelry, to try to find a diamond that doesn't get destroyed. But a lot of times people throw away things or have the slab removed prematurely. In 1 case, I had a very close friend in Ramona whose house burned down, and they were getting ready to throw all debris away, and I asked them, did you have any sterling silver ware? And they said oh, yeah, but it's evaporated. I said point to me where it was. It was in the corner of a house where the kitchen used to be. And we dug down through the ashes, there was about a half-inch layer of AN unrecognizable blob, and that was solid sterling silver. And I said you can take that to an assayer and they'll give you the value for the silver content.
ST. JOHN: Interesting. And what about these fire boxes that people can purchase?
SCOTT: Well, that's not. A lot of times the heat gets so intense that it can actually -- the ones that you buy at a local hardware store, for certain types of fires, if it's far enough away, it'll be okay. But if it's in intense heat for a long period of time, it won't work.
ST. JOHN: So maybe not even rely on that for documents? Have backups somewhere else?
ST. JOHN: And one of the more long-term issues is the emotional effects of the disaster and a catastrophe. What do you offer in way of advice?
SCOTT: Losing a home, and in that process sometimes a pet is lost, a family member is lost. So there's varying degrees on the emotional recovery. You just need time, you need good council, and you need people, loved ones alongside you to walk you through the days to follow. And it's a process. It's difficult. But you can get through it.
ST. JOHN: Well, I'd like to thank you so much for making us think about what we need to be prepared for.
ST. JOHN: And if you go to our website and look at the Midday Edition segment, we can tell you how to order his book.