Wildfire Victims Struggle to Rebuild, Two Years Later Southern California wildfires two years ago destroyed most of the houses in a picturesque canyon east of Los Angeles. Day to Day producer Skye Rohde tells the story of Palmer Canyon residents still wrangling with bureaucracy and other obstacles to rebuilding.

Wildfire Victims Struggle to Rebuild, Two Years Later

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

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

At the beginning of this week, we reported on the devastating wildfires in Texas and New Mexico and Oklahoma. So far, grass fires in those states have killed five people and destroyed nearly 500 houses. Fire victims often remain at loose ends after the media has stopped reporting on their disasters. Reporter Skye Rohde spoke with residents of Palmer Canyon, just outside Claremont, California, more than two years after a fire burned almost everyone out of their homes.

SKYE ROHDE reporting:

It was hot and dry on October 25th, 2003. That day, the fire moved quickly into Palmer Canyon. Sheriffs drove the narrow road up the canyon with a bullhorn at 10 that night telling residents they had 15 minutes to grab what they could and go. With many of their neighbors, Chuck and Jill Barclo(ph) headed down to a nearby supermarket a mile south of the canyon to wait and watch the fire on the ridge line.

Mr. CHUCK BARCLO (House Burned in Palmer Canyon Fire): You keep calling your answering machine all night to see if your phone's going to answer and...

ROHDE: There was bad news in the morning. Forty-three of the 47 houses burned down. A few pets died, but no people. Residents didn't have much time to mourn at first. They had to find new homes. Many stayed with relatives and filled cookie-cutter apartment complexes in nearby Claremont. They filed insurance claims. They figured they'd start rebuilding right away. Hope propelled them--for a while. Chuck and Jill Barclo owned one of the bigger houses in the canyon. They set up lawn chairs on an undamaged patio and brought toys for their grandchildren to play with.

Mrs. JILL BARCLO (House Burned in Palmer Canyon Fire): Yeah, I found comfort in coming back up here, but as time's gone, you know--as it's gone on, we come up here less and less. I think it hurts now.

ROHDE: It wasn't as easy to rebuild as they'd hoped. A land survey left some of the landowners with new property lines and land too steep to rebuild on. Los Angeles County told residents they'd need to upgrade their water and septic systems and widen the single road in and out of the canyon, and that they'd need to pay for the work themselves. Estimates for these improvements run around $15 million. On top of that, the county requires an environmental impact statement. Los Angeles County can only issue building permits to residents after they make these improvements.

Most of the Palmer Canyon residents are suing the nearby city of Claremont for the cost of the infrastructure and individual damages. They claim the city failed to maintain the property it owns around the canyon. Claremont city officials declined to comment on the lawsuit. The case is scheduled to go to court in July.

Los Angeles County firefighter Marty Francis and his wife lost their house at the top of the canyon. Last summer they were able to buy one of the four that didn't burn down. Along the canyon road on a fall afternoon, new growth sprouted a shocking green against a charred landscape. Francis said he was glad to be back.

Mr. MARTY FRANCIS (Los Angeles County Firefighter): It feels like home being back in the canyon, but Lorraine(ph) and I both wake up in the morning 'cause I--we just can't believe we're sti--we're here, you know, we're back in the canyon.

ROHDE: He loves the sound of leaves stirring in the trees and the stream running nearby. But Francis is always aware of what's no longer there.

Mr. FRANCIS: There were three other homes up at the west fork that perished in the fire.

ROHDE: It's interesting that you say `perished.' It's like a being, a living being dying, you know?

Mr. FRANCIS: Well, I guess it's just a term that I've come to use because I feel like in a way they had a life of their own, you know? They're all so unique and had their own history and character to it.

ROHDE: Many of those one-of-a-kind houses were built from wood about 80 years ago. Some residents are still paying multiple mortgages on them. Chuck and Jill Barclo paid off their mortgage after the fire. They've invested in a new house 15 minutes away. They still want to return to Palmer Canyon.

Mr. BARCLO: There's a lot of other little canyons but none of them look the same. None of them look quite as quaint and sylvan as this place does. This place was just a little tiny piece of heaven on Earth.

ROHDE: Since the second anniversary of the fire in October, the federal government and the Red Cross have committed more than a million dollars toward infrastructure costs. Los Angeles County has told the homeowners' association it plans to fund and conduct the environmental impact report. Until that happens, the chaparral is reclaiming the places people used to live. Homeowners are trying to maintain their memories of what Palmer Canyon was and build their futures on what it will become.

For NPR News, I'm Skye Rohde.

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