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Assessing the Damage House by House

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One thousand forty-two. That's the latest tally of homes destroyed by the 2007 firestorm. That number isn't just a guess. It's the result of the tireless work of damage assessment teams. Men and women

Assessing the Damage House by House

One thousand forty-two. That's the latest tally of homes destroyed by the 2007 firestorm. That number isn't just a guess. It's the result of the tireless work of damage assessment teams. Men and women who venture into the burn zones not long after the fire passes through, to gather the grim data of destruction. Reporter Tamara Keith rode along with a damage assessment team today and has this story.

San Diego County building inspector Tim Fitzgerald steers a white Ford Explorer over rough winding roads on the outskirts of Ramona. 

In the backseat Sean McCarthy takes notes on a clipboard. Both men have matching buzz cuts and share a sense of the importance of their task.

Fitzgerald:  We're going to head out and see if we can find the origin point.

Fitzgerald says they're conducting a "windshield survey."  

Fitzgerald: It basically gives you a general idea a number…an exact number by the end of it. 

And through the windshield of their SUV, they frequently see devastation. Homes burned to the ground. Just a jumble of charred beams and belongings. 

071026-taggedhouse-tk.jpg Fitzgerald:   Ahhhh. Destroyed single familydwelling. Outbuilding got saved.

More than 60 San Diego County building inspectors are driving the unincorporated neighborhoods of the county. Cataloging the damage caused by the Witch Fire, the Harris Fire and others. In many cases they are the first ones to see the damaged and destroyed homes. Their reports are posted each morning on the county website, and for some homeowners, it's the first they learn of the status of their homes. 

Fitzgerald:  This area was hit real hard.

Fitzgerald and McCarthy turn into a rural subdivision and find more blackened homes. They struggle to reconcile the need to quickly catalog losses, to add a tally mark and keep moving with their sympathy for the homeowners who don't yet know of their loss. And for Fitzgerald there is something more going on…

Fitzgerald:  I live in Fallbrook and we're on mandatory evacuation…oh there's another one.

After the windshield survey, inspectors conduct a more detailed inspection. In the affluent Highland Hills development the ground is singed, and several of the homes are flattened. Inspector Brian McKeegan sizes up the damage to a home built nestled in boulders with panoramic views of a valley below.

071026-burnedhouse2-tk.jpg McKeegan:  First of all, it's destroyed…exterior construction material…let's see.

It was wood siding with a copper roof, but it's nearly impossible to tell. He also takes a GPS reading and notes about the windows, and how close vegetation grew to the building. 

Inspector Sean McCarthy stands on a boulder overlooking the home. 

McCarthy:  It's just incredible. I couldn't have imagined anything of this scale.

In the rubble, some clay pots stand out. They are some of the only items still recognizable. McCarthy says he often thinks about the belongings people lost, hoping they will be able to pull at least some items they value from the rubble.

McCarthy:  Whether it's 5,000 square feet. Every time I count one it's just another tragedy, another heartbreak.

But the carefully accounting of each destroyed home will have numerous uses. The information will be used by the county building department to expedite rebuilding, the county assessor's office, insurance companies and FEMA. And it will also be used to learn how to limit future disasters says Jeff Murphy, Deputy Director of the department of planning and land use.

Murphy:  When we had the Cedar Fire in 03…could improve our building codes.

The total cost of this firestorm is still being calculated. The damage assessments will continue for at least a week. The latest figure is $505 million. But some county officials have said it could top a billion. 

For KPBS, I'm Tamara Keith in Ramona.

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