Homeowners Begin Tallying the Wildfire Damage As wildfires in Southern California continue to burn, thousands of evacuees have been allowed to return home. San Diego damage assessment teams are fanning out across the county to calculate the costs to homeowners.
NPR logo

Tamara Keith of member station KQED reports on evacuees returning home for 'Day to Day'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/15661154/15661111" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Homeowners Begin Tallying the Wildfire Damage

Tamara Keith of member station KQED reports on evacuees returning home for 'Day to Day'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/15661154/15661111" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Cohen.


I'm Alex Chadwick.

There've been a lot of numbers about the Southern California fires. Some not so reliable, but this one is solid, we believe: 1,042. It's the latest tally of homes destroyed in San Diego County. It's not a guess; it's the result of the tireless work of damage assessment teams.

Reporter Tamara Keith from member station KQED rode along with one of the teams, and here's her report.

TAMARA KEITH: 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.

Mr. TIM FITZGERALD (Building Inspector, San Diego County, California): Let's - we're going to head out and see if we can find the origin point and work our way back in from there.

KEITH: Fitzgerald says they're conducting a windshield survey.

Mr. FITZGERALD: It basically gives you a general idea, a number to start with of homes that you've lost and structures that you've lost.

KEITH: And through the windshield of their SUV, today they see devastation - homes burned to the ground, just a jumble of charred beams and belongings. In the last few days, Fitzgerald and McCarthy often have been the first to see the damage. Their reports and those of dozens of other inspectors are posted each morning on the county Web site. And for some homeowners, it's the first they learn of the status of their homes.

Mr. FITZGERALD: Destroyed a single family dwelling. Outbuilding got saved.

KEITH: Fitzgerald and McCarthy 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's something more going on.

Mr. FITZGERALD: I live in Fallbrook and we're on mandatory evacuation right now. I can't fathom my house being lost. There's a single family dwelling destroyed over there on the hilltop.

KEITH: After the windshield survey, teams conduct a more detailed inspection of each home, taking DTS ratings and noting specific information about the size of the home, the building materials used to construct it, and the proximity to brush.

Inspector Sean McCarthy sizes up the damage to a home built nestled in boulders with panoramic views of a valley below.

Mr. SEAN McCARTHY (Inspector): It's just - it's incredible. I just - I couldn't ever imagined anything on this scale.

KEITH: In the rubble, some clay pots stand out. They are some of the only items still recognizable.

Mr. McCARTHY: Whether it's 5,000 square feet or a 1,000 square feet, that was somebody's home and that was really important to them and it's gone. It was taken from them. I mean, I just — I really feel for these people. It's just - it's unbelievable.

KEITH: The information will be used by the county building department, insurance companies, the Red Cross, and FEMA. 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 NPR News, I'm Tamara Keith in San Diego.

COHEN: In addition to assessing the damage, authorities are also looking into the causes. At least two of the wildfires are now being treated as arson cases, including the Santiago Fire in Orange County.

Here's Fire Battalion Chief Kris Concepcion speaking today on CBS's "The Early Show."

(Soundbite of "The Early Show") Mr. KRIS CONCEPCION (Orange County Fire Authority): There's been over 250 tips to our arson tip line and the task force is committed to chasing each one of those 250 leads to make sure that we catch whoever is responsible for this crime. But it's very apparent that whoever did it knew what they were doing.

COHEN: We're joined now by Dian Williams. She's president of the Center for Arson Research and she's author of "Understanding the Arsonist from Assessment to Confession."

Welcome to the program.

Dr. DIAN WILLIAMS (Center for Arson Research): Thank you so much. It's my pleasure.

COHEN: If we could start off talking about what compels an arsonist to start a fire; what are some of the reasons?

Dr. WILLIAMS: One reason might be for the thrill of it. And the thrill is not in the fire. The thrill is in getting away with the crime of setting the fire. That might be of interest in your state because of the presence of so many police and fire individuals right there on the ground. For thrill-seekers, that's fairly irresistible.

A second motive might be that of revenge. And it's not unheard of for people who are temporarily employed to fight fires, to go forward and set more fires to continue their employment.

COHEN: You studied arsonists for quite some time. Do they seem to fit a certain profile when it comes to things like gender, age, race, income level?

Dr. WILLIAMS: They fit the profile of gender more clearly than any other, in that approximately 96 percent of all arsonists are male.

COHEN: Any idea why?

Dr. WILLIAMS: It probably has to do with the socialization, differences between men and women in our culture. That women have a tendency when acting out, to actually act in against themselves so you have more women with an eating disorder, for instance, where as men are socialized in a more aggressive way. Fire is certainly an aggressive act.

COHEN: These fires this week have caused so much damage, so many people have lost their homes, a few have lost their lives. Do arsonists think at all about the damage that they've caused, ostensibly the people that they don't even know?

Dr. WILLIAMS: In all the interviews we have ever done over the years with arsonists, face-to-face, we have found almost no kind of remorse. If there is any sadness or remorse, it is over getting caught. The victims are really not considered.

COHEN: How often are authorities actually able to find arsonists and arrest them?

Dr. WILLIAMS: About 17 percent of arson cases are successfully prosecuted across the United States.

COHEN: Seventeen or seventy?

Dr. WILLIAMS: Seventeen.

COHEN: Hmm. That's not a lot.

Dr. WILLIAMS: No. It is a very under-prosecuted felony. It's very expensive to prosecute, and at that kind of a crime you don't generally have eyewitness testimony. A lot of the evidence is destroyed and, frankly, arsonists don't confess.

COHEN: Dian, I'm wondering if there's any way to do preventative work to try to stop these fires. I mean, it seems like if you don't even have any regard for the damage you're causing, there has to be something very deep going on there, psychologically. Is there any way to try to reach out and prevent would-be arsonists?

Dr. WILLIAMS: The best time for prevention is childhood and early adolescence. If you have an adult arsonist, if the fire was really deliberately set, what you must assume is that this is not the first fire. So that you have somebody who may be at 35 or 40 might be arrested for the first time, but they might well have set seventy-five to a hundred fires before that one, and have gotten away with setting those fires. They might even have been arrested for a previous fire and incarcerated. But incarceration does not interrupt fire-setting behavior except through the inconvenience of prison. When the person is released, our experience is that they resume setting fires.

COHEN: Dian Williams is president of the Center for Arson Research.

Thank you so much for joining us.

Dr. WILLIAMS: That's quite all right. You all stay safe out there.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.