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Wildfire Recovery: Rising from the Ashes in San Diego County

Audio

Aired 4/19/09

(Photo: Linda Laird stands on an empty dirt lot where her ranch home once stood.  Six months ago, Laird's home burned to the ground during the Witch fire. Ed Joyce/KPBS )

For one victim of last October's wildfires in San Diego County, losing her home has been a blessing of sorts. KPBS Reporter Ed Joyce first introduced us to Linda Laird at her sifting party last year ( Read the story ).  Six months later, here's an update on her recovery.

It's an eerie feeling - the gusty winds again blowing hard across Linda Laird's ranch, just as they did last October when wind-whipped blazes from the Witch Fire burned her ranch home to the ground and scarred other portions of her 20 acre farm.

Laird:  You almost need a, you know, flak jacket or something to make sure you don't get hit by flying debris. You remember I told you the morning of the fire the first thing I did was to struggle a large piece of five-eighths-inch plywood into the bedroom window. Well, the bedroom window was right over there.

We're standing in the wind on a dirt lot where her home once stood, about 10 miles east of Ramona and not far from where Highway 78 meets the Old Julian Highway.

Laird: And this of course is um, probably about 20 miles an hour less than what it was the day of the fire. Cause they've actually now said that they were hurricane force winds. So yeah the slab is gone. It's more or less been leveled out. The debris field is still over there cause that'll stay until you know we get to the end of the insurance thing.

We step behind a nearby RV to take shelter from the wind. Let's also step back - about six months, when we first met Laird sifting through the ashes of her home for precious family possessions, such as melted ceramic cockatoos.

Laird: Oh, oh my birdies, oh, oh. Those are Grandma's cockatoos. I know that's funny but these are older than I am. It's a hell of an end.

But from that end, a new beginning.

Laird: In some ways the fire's been an enabling experience because it you know kind of burned away all the distractions except for you know going forward.

You can barely tell fire scorched the land and nearby hillsides. Everything that was black is now green. Just the top of a hill alongside her home - where eagles have returned to glide in the warm winds - shows evidence of fire.

She's now living in a temporary, but comfy, modular home - sharing the valley view with her cat, dog and three fluffy angora rabbits. Of her 16 llamas, four are pregnant.

Laird: We're back to it's not a travel trailer and it's not a FEMA trailer. It actually feels and operates like a house. So it isn't claustrophobic because of the extra tiers of windows, it's got a high ceiling.

Because of the comfort, Laird's not sure if she'll rebuild.

Laird:  I'm going to certainly negotiate with the insurance company and get, get what I need to get and what's appropriate for the replacement value. Right? So that's step one before I can decide what to do.  But gee, this isn't a lot of room to have to keep clean, the focus of my life is outside that door not inside the door. And the notion of paying off the mortgage is extraordinarily appealing.

Meantime, she's hired a public adjuster to handle the negotiations with the insurance company. 

Laird:  So when the insurance company says they want to pay me a $167 a square foot to rebuild my house and my architect says the going rate's $300, the public adjuster comes in and helps argue on my behalf.

If Laird does rebuild she says the new home would have to withstand hurricane force winds.

Laird admits to occasional tearful moments when thinking about the loss of her family heirlooms.

But the anguish, stress and pain we saw on her face six months ago have vanished.

Laird:  I have a new family, the family is the ranch family. And that's a family of you know humans that live here and neighbors and animals and what we're growing. That's taken a very important spot.

Ed Joyce, KPBS News.

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