Wildfire Evacuees Return to Little or Nothing

Evacuation orders have been lifted in many parts of San Diego, but hundreds of residents have no place to go.

Wildfires scorched hundreds of thousands of acres and continue to burn in many back country areas.

Meanwhile, urban officials have begun turning their attention to rebuilding efforts and considering how to prepare for the next big firestorm.

Even before Paul Kassel drove down the narrow, winding road that leads to his property in the San Diego suburb of Poway, he feared the worst.

He and his family had fled their home at 3 a.m. Monday. They later heard that the wildfire swept right through their neighborhood.

"My brother who lost his home in the Cedar Fire four years ago, told me, 'Call your house. If the phone rings, it's still there. If you get a busy signal, it's gone.' And I called and I got a busy signal," Kassel said.

Families Survey Damage

Even with that warning, Kassel said, it was a shock to see the blackened rubble of what used to be his home. A wrought iron chair is still recognizable, but Kassel cannot tell if it is where the kitchen was or maybe the game room. Two hula hoops and a garden hose are the only things he managed to salvage.

"There's nothing left. I mean, this is a 5,500 square-foot home, and it's all the way down to the ground," he said.

Still, Kassel, his wife, Cynthia, and their two children are safe. For the moment, they're living in a motor home, with the few possessions they managed to bring with them.

"We got a few pictures, but you never leave your house thinking that you're not coming back; so, we just never thought we wouldn't be coming back," Cynthia Kassel said.

The wildfires destroyed more than 80 homes in Poway, and, so far, have claimed more than a thousand throughout San Diego County. Yesterday, residents were allowed to return to some of the badly burned areas.

Bob Myers, who lives a short distance away from the Kassels, was one of the lucky ones.

"The house is okay. It's got soot and smells like smoke, and it burned, literally, around it," Myers said. "It blew these trees down; these tall eucalyptus. They didn't burn down, they just broke. The wind must have come through here at l00 miles an hour."

Myers looks ruefully around at the fire trucks that are now putting out hotspots in the neighborhood. They were not around to protect the area this week, they way they have been for smaller fires in the past.

"Another fire we had here, there was a truck at every single house," he recalled. "This time I don't think they were here at all. They just didn't have the resources, and the fire was flying, and there was no way for them to get in front of it."

Help Arrives

Fire engines, airplanes and ground crews were all stretched thin this week, as wildfires raged throughout Southern California. A giant firefighting seaplane that was supposed to arrive from Canada Wednesday was temporarily held up by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. But San Diego regional fire coordinator Kevin Crawford said more help is on the way.

"We have received a number of assets from outside Southern California. They're starting to trickle down into San Diego County from the northern regions of California. That's a good thing. That will provide an opportunity for our personnel to get some needed rest," Crawford said.

In the past, San Diego has been faulted for not investing enough in its own firefighting resources — even after the 2003 Cedar Fire destroyed more than 2,000 homes.

Ron Roberts, chairman of the San Diego Board of Supervisors, conceded there is a long way to go, but he said the region is making progress.

"The county of San Diego now has two helicopters. The city has a helicopter. None of these resources was available. We have, with our own money, put two in the air. I don't think anybody would begin to say that this is enough," he said.

Los Angeles County, for example, has about five times as many firefighting helicopters, even though it covers a smaller area than San Diego.

The shortage of local resources leaves San Diego more dependent on outside help, and this week every county in Southern California was clamoring for more firefighting tools, Roberts said.

"Do we want more? You bet you. No question about it. And to the extent that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, I'll continue to be the squeaky wheel," he said.

Even with fires still burning in San Diego, authorities are opening up offices to help victims with the rebuilding process.

Kassel said his brother has nearly finished rebuilding after the Cedar Fire. It only took four years.

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