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Fire Survivors Face Long Road to Rebuilding

The San Diego wildfires have faded from the headlines, but fire victims have not forgotten. They still must overcome the inertia. Then they have to confront the insurance companies. And then they face

Deerhorn Valley, a small town in the hills above Highway 94, was devastated by the wildfires.

Gene Peterson lost everything.

Peterson: This was my house here. We had a bedroom here, a bedroom there, a front room, a bathroom, and a kitchen.

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Peterson says anything with a melting point below steel disintegrated. Now he and his wife live in a 400-square-foot RV.

Peterson: Being here for 35 years you acquire a lot of stuff that you say, you know, I could do without this, but you have such an attachment to it at the time that you don't want to throw it out. So now, OK, it's gone. I have to get what I really need now.

The Petersons are rebuilding, and they have a lot of work to do. They need permits from several county agencies. The County of San Diego is waiving most fees for fire survivors.

The Petersons must also meet strict fire codes. They thought their home was safe last time.

Peterson: We thought we had our property pretty well cleared. The sheep did a real good job of keeping the grass down. The trees -- we had pretty good clearance with the trees, except for one or two that overhung the house. But from what I've been told, the fire just came through. It didn't travel like a bulldozer. It just jumped. Because the winds would just carry it.

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New fire standards call for cement siding, double-paned windows and a plastic roof instead of wood. It can be expensive and complicated. But the Petersons have help in Deena Raver.

Raver hosts a series of workshops to guide rebuilders through zoning laws and environmental restrictions. She happily confronts difficult contractors. On a recent evening in Fallbrook, Raver explains everything from setbacks to septic tanks.

Peterson: I'm still working with a fire survivor from the Cedar Fires in 2003. She's just in the permit process right now. She has a long way to go before her house is done. You can count on this recovery process taking an individual anywhere between two years to five or six years.

Raver says the majority of people do rebuild, but compared to 2003, many more are moving on. She says the 2007 fires hit a different demographic.

Raver: There's a lot of population of immigrant workers, very low-income areas, elderly areas, living on a fixed income, no insurance. The bottom line is insurance on homes is not cheap.

Raver says it's almost impossible to get insurance in Julian, where the fires came twice. The California Insurance Commissioner says at least 71 San Diegans have filed complaints about their coverage. There are probably more.

Raver says there's another pitfall to beware of: unscrupulous contractors.

Raver: They may, for example, be clearing their property, and the contractor says, "Hey, you know what, I got this piece of equipment here -- why don't we go ahead and start doing the pad? It's going to save you money in the long run." Well, guess what? He ruined the septic system.

The district attorney is going after unlicensed contracting. That's a felony in disaster zones. A dozen people face charges after getting caught in sting operations.

Back in Deerhorn Valley, Gene Peterson is just beginning the process.

Peterson: You first go through a lot of remorse and "why did it happen to me" and you think of all the things you've lost, and then you come to the realization that you do have the things you really love, your family. The things that we lost could be replaced.

Andrew Phelps, KPBS News.

The San Diego wildfires have faded from the headlines, but fire victims have not forgotten. They still must overcome the inertia. Then they have to confront the insurance companies. And then they face a wall of bureaucracy. KPBS reporter Andrew Phelps says rebuilding can take years.

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