RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
It's been exactly a month since a series of wildfires broke out here in southern California. The fires forced the half million people to evacuate and destroyed 2,000 homes. Now there's concern over forecast for more dry windy weather this week - conditions ripe for fire.
Andrew Phelps is a reporter with member station KPBS in San Diego and joined us to talk about this.
ANDREW PHELPS: Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: Are preparations underway there in San Diego County, given the possible return of the Santa Ana winds?
PHELPS: Yes. So we get these warnings kind of a lot. The dangerous Santa Ana winds are back. That means the humidity is low, the winds are high, and it's particularly warm. Of course when we got these warnings a month ago, we wondered if it would become anything and it wound up becoming a disaster.
CAL FIRE, the state firefighting agency, has brought in eight extra crews, a half dozen air tankers, extra fire strike teams - and those are firefighters dedicated to saving homes when homes are threatened - as well as 15 extra fire engines. So there are definitely high alert this week.
MONTAGNE: Looking back to what caused the fires from a month ago, there is at least one confirmed case of arson, another where a boy was playing with matches. Beyond that, what else is now known about what might have caused these fires?
PHELPS: Well, at least, three of the fires were caused by down power lines, and there have already been two lawsuits filed from people who lost their homes against the utility here, that's San Diego Gas and Electric. The lawsuits accused the company of not clearing away brush and trimming trees near power lines so when the poles fell and the vegetation caught fire, the fire spread and a lot of people lost their homes, obviously. These folks want to get payback for losing their homes in these fires.
MONTAGNE: There is also talk of new legislation, already in just this month, in reaction to those fires.
PHELPS: That's right. U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein has introduced a package of bills. And one of those helps people pay the mortgage - even though they've lost their homes they still have a mortgage to pay. She's also introduced a bill to raise the cap on financial aid for victims. And one of the more interesting bills that I haven't seen before is one that would create an arson database, sort of like the registry for convicted sex offenders, whereby convicted fire starters would have to register their name, their address, place of work so that the public would have a right to know if they live near one of these arsonists.
MONTAGNE: And, initially, losses from the fire were said to be in the range of a billion dollars. Is there a better estimate of the full economic impact now that these weeks have passed?
PHELPS: Well, it's hard to estimate things like that because there are so many factors and so many different ways to measure. The numbers that I've heard are closer to $2 billion. In agriculture alone, Southern California has lost at least $50 million or so, and that number will probably grow. So farming, which is a very big industry in Southern California, especially in San Diego County, has taken a big hit. Then, of course, millions more lost with all the homes that burned down.
MONTAGNE: And what about rebuilding, signs of that at this point in parts of the San Diego County?
PHELPS: Yes. Early signs, at least. It's hard to believe it's been a month. It doesn't feel like there's been a major disaster but the county has issued the first permits for homes. People have to decide whether they want to stick around and rebuild or get out of town and start a new life somewhere else. So at least the beginning of that reconstruction has begun.
MONTAGNE: Andrew Phelps is a reporter with member station KPBS in San Diego.
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