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Three years after fires, rural communities not yet rebuilt


One chapter of the deadly Cedar Fire ended Monday. A victim’s assistance center in Scripps Ranch is closing after issuing the last of hundreds of building permits to those who lost their homes. But nearly three years after the blaze, many rural communities are not so far along in the reconstruction effort. KPBS Radio’s Andrew Phelps reports.


When wildfires burned San Diego County in October 2003, a myriad of volunteer groups sprang from the ashes, helping to rebuild some of the 2,700 homes that burned down. These days, try calling many of those groups and you’ll hear this:

Operator: You have reached a number that has been disconnected or is no longer in service. If you feel you have reached this number in error, please check the number, or try your call again.

One group that’s still around is Project Phoenix in Scripps Ranch, a well-organized machine that pushed local government to bring relief. More than 300 Scripps Ranch homes burned down in the Cedar Fire. Now, almost every one of them is rebuilt.


Bill Ilko is a Project Phoenix coordinator. Though most of the work is done, Ilko says life in Scripps Ranch doesn’t quite feel normal.

Ilko: Life is gonna be a little bit different. We’ve got to make sure that we’re more fire-conscious, we’re more prepared to move out in a moment’s notice.

Dry Santa Ana winds have reached San Diego County, and the National Weather Service issued a red-flag fire warning for some areas. But Ilko says that doesn’t make him jittery. He says a smarter Scripps Ranch would be ready for another fire.

Ilko : We’ve been able to do a lot more in the last two years than ever before. And so jittery? No.”

But it’s a different feeling in many rural communities.

Hake: The people that were here during the fire are absolutely that way.”

That’s Johnny Hake of Julian, and he is jittery. Hake helped organize the San Diego Firestorm Community Recovery Team, a coalition of backcountry neighborhoods. Whenever Hake hears wailing sirens, he wonders -- is the forest on fire?

Hake: It doesn’t matter if it’s an ambulance, a fire truck. You just get real quiet. And you wait for the next thing. You wait to hear - what was it?”

Hake lost his home in the Paradise Fire. He rebuilt, but he estimates half of Julian still has not rebuilt. Every one interviewed for this story says Crest and Harbison Canyon are very far behind in the reconstruction effort. Hake is also concerned about Ramona, Valley Center and Lakeside. He says the insured got help, the uninsured got help, but the underinsured slipped through the cracks.

Hake: “It may mean that you have enough money to feed yourself , and it may be that you have enough money to rebuild a shack, but certainly not enough to house your family.”

Hake says fire victims in that third category -- the underinsured -- are forced to decide whether to fight for a fair settlement or take what they can from the insurance companies. And as the memory of the firestorm fades, so does the charity of neighbors.


Bob Ilko, from Scripps Ranch, says his community enjoys some advantages over rural East and North County. Scripps Ranch is master-planned -- easier to rebuild without squabbles over property lines or problems with old infrastructure.

Ilko : This is a suburban neighborhood. Things are different than it is perhaps in Crest or Harbison Canyon. Our neighbors are literally 10 feet on each side of each other, 12 feet on each side. You know, in Harbison Canyon, it could be 100 or 200 feet between homes. So the community and the culture is different.

And people in Scripps Ranch have more money. The median home price there is about three-quarters of a million dollars versus $200,000 to $300,000 in many of the rural communities.


Red Cross Spokeswoman Gayle Falkenthal is not surprised that some people have yet to rebuild three years after San Diego County’s worst disaster. For some people, she says, it’s just harder to pick up the pieces and start over -- no matter where they live.

Falkenthal: The vast majority does quickly move on, quickly recover. But others do take a very long time to literally do the very basics of getting back on their feet.

For victims of the Cedar and Paradise fires, the opportunity for Red Cross relief is now gone. The Red Cross closed its last case four weeks ago, after spending about $8-million on the relief effort. As the third anniversary of the firestorm draws closer, some fire victims worry that San Diego is moving on without them. For KPBS, I’m Andrew Phelps.

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