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Fire Victims, City Officials Meet to Discuss Clean-up Plan

(Photo: Rancho Bernardo community holds informational meeting for fire victims at Rancho Bernardo Presbyterian Church. Alison St John/KPBS )

The community of Rancho Bernardo held a second meeting last night, to find out how the city could help them start the rebuilding process. More than 360 homes burned down in this community, in the early morning hours of the second day of the Witch fire . KPBS reporter Alison St John has more.

The pews of Rancho Bernardo’s Presbyterian Church were filled with people who have spent the last  ten days coming to terms with the fact that everything they owned is gone .

At a meeting earlier this week the mood was highly charged, as people recounted how the reverse 9-1-1 system had failed them, and they had been forced to flee with no warning, the flames already licking around their homes. 

But last night the recriminations were fewer and the gratitude more palpable, as Mayor Jerry Sanders opened the meeting .

Sanders: I want to thank our police officers and fire fighters.

Sanders announced the city’s fire clean up program, based on a model used after fires burned 250 homes in Lake Tahoe in July. He said a single contractor who cleaned up all those homes will arrive in San Diego tomorrow and is prepared to start clearing homes in San Diego in about two weeks. 

Sanders: The benefit to the homeowners on this is you know the clean up is done right by a contractor who is specialized in this kind of contract and so you know it’s been done in the correct way, and no-one can come back later and say it hasn’t been done in an environmentally sound way -- we’ll take care of all of that.

The demolition and disposal of debris will cost the homeowner nothing. The state has agreed to pay 75 percent of  the estimated $15 million cost,  with the city picking up 25 percent.

Much of that should be reimbursed by individual insurance companies or FEMA.

The main benefit to the city is that a toxic soup of chemical pollutants left in the ashes will be disposed of by a licensed contractor and not dumped in places where it could cause future problems. The contractor will also dig up concrete slabs and recycle what can be recycled.

The offer of free clean up was welcome news to some but left homeowner Hai Tran in a quandary. His insurance company has already cleared the site of his burned out home.

Tran: Yes the whole place is clean. They pulled down the chimney and everything the thing is it brings up a lot of questions I have for my insurer. Based on tonight, it’s very counter to what my insurer was telling me which was you can keep the slab and just build on it..

Tran was torn between moving ahead rapidly to rebuild or wait perhaps up to six weeks to have the city contractor remove his slab. He leaned towards making sure the job is done right before accepting the insurance company’s judgment.

Other fire victims are nowhere near these kind of decisions. Mark Lang has lived with his family in Rancho Bernardo for more than a decade, but last week’s traumatic experience left him uncertain about what he wants to do next. 

Lang: This week’s been about getting our lives back into some sort of normalcy. I haven’t even thought about rebuilding yet you know. Get the kids sorted out you know. Maybe you don’t even rebuild, you just sell the lot and move down the road. 

At the back of everyone’s mind is, what if it happens again? The city is working diligently to help homeowners get back on their feet and rebuild. But many of the community’s questions at last night’s forum focused on how can San Diego be better prepared next time.

Alison St John, KPBS News.

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