2003 Fire Victims Reach Out to Help Others The massive Cedar fire in 2003 destroyed hundreds of homes in the San Diego area. Now, people who lost their homes in 2003 are providing both practical advice and inspiration to the victims of this week's devastating fires.
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2003 Fire Victims Reach Out to Help Others

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2003 Fire Victims Reach Out to Help Others

2003 Fire Victims Reach Out to Help Others

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BLOCK: NPR's Scott Horsley has that story.

SCOTT HORSLEY: Bob Ilko stands on a street corner in San Diego and surveys his suburban neighborhood.

BOB ILKO: Those first three homes were destroyed in the fire. Then, it skipped four homes and then burned the houses on the other end.

HORSLEY: Ilko could be talking about anyone in several San Diego communities struck by this week's firestorm. But he's not. This is the neighborhood of Scripps Ranch. And the fire he's describing hit four years ago, wiping out more than 2,000 homes. Ilko's immediate neighborhood lost 32 houses in that fire, but you wouldn't know it today.

ILKO: That is our 32nd out of the 32 homes to be reconstructed. So we are finished in our neighborhood when it comes to rebuilding.

HORSLEY: Ilko, who chairs the neighborhood planning group, helped organized the rebuilding effort which was called Project Phoenix. While we're talking, a neighbor strolls by with two yellow Labradors. Barbara McCormick lost her house in the fire. It took her family about a year and a half to rebuild.

BARBARA MCCORMICK: It's a long, arduous process, but it is well worth it in the end.

HORSLEY: McCormick teaches at an elementary school, where 107 lost homes in that earlier fire. Her school is now planning to adopt a school in nearby Poway, where students suffered a similar fate this time around.

MCCORMICK: What we now know is what isn't most needed, but the people that have lost their homes.

HORSLEY: Veterans of the Scripps Ranch fire have been gathering up gift carts, file boxes, wheelbarrows and specially-built screens for sifting through ashes. Even more than supplies, though, what these earlier fire victims have to offer is practical advice, a blueprint for recreating a neighborhood. In Scripps Ranch, neighbors who are scattered by the fire used an e-mail network to keep in touch and share information. In one case, they even bargained collectively with a developer, an approach that Ilko recommends.

ILKO: Rather than 80 homes being built by 80 different builders, if you can get that down to two or three, it makes the life a lot easier.

HORLSEY: The people of Scripps Ranch got similar help themselves four years ago from fire victims in Oakland Hills and Pasadena. Ilko says each situation is different, but with experience, the rebuilding can get faster. Scripps Ranch managed to achieve in two years what took nearly a decade in Oakland. Still, Barbara McCormick warns fire victims, patience will be tested.

MCCORMICK: When I was at my wits end and I said I can't do it anymore, I just want to go home, a friend of ours said, Barbara, six months from now, you will never remember this. And I have to tell you, two minutes after we moved in, it was all forgotten. And that is something that should be encouragement to those that have lost their homes, that they, too, will get to the point where they'll be back and whole again.

HORSLEY: Scott Horsley, NPR News, San Diego.

BLOCK: And that process of rebuilding is already underway. San Diego County officials say they have received the first application for a rebuilding permit. Other support for reconstruction will come from local and federal governments and, of course, insurance companies.

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