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Lake Arrowhead

The fire this time

Disaster | Families hit twice in four years by catastrophic wildfires face the prospect of another grueling recovery effort

Issue: "Elephant in the room," Nov. 3, 2007

SAN DIEGO-Wildfires roaring through seven Southern California counties had by Oct. 25 torched 695 square miles, from the Mexican border to Malibu, and inland into the San Bernardino Mountains and the resort area of Lake Arrowhead. The state insurance department estimated the damage at more than $1 billon, including more than 1,600 homes destroyed, with at least 10 people dead.

Worst hit was San Diego County, where three blazes-the Witch Creek, Harris, and Rice fires-accounted for nearly three-quarters of the total acreage burned. In the northern suburb of Rancho Bernardo, entire streets lay in ash and rubble as at least 250 homes were lost in a domino-effect blaze touched off after a power line fell near Interstate 15.

Evacuation estimates in San Diego County ranged from 500,000 to nearly a million people, with the first number based on census data, and the second based on the average number of residents per home cleared. Evacuees took shelter at Qualcomm Stadium and area high schools, where donations of food and supplies poured in and moods remained generally upbeat.

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"They are taking so much care of us," said Mila Nentvich, 76, who took refuge in a Red Cross shelter established inside the gymnasium at Santana High School in Santee, Calif. "You can't believe so much food!"

In the Santana shelter, mattresses and gymnastics mats lined the floor in ranks, each one a jumble of pillows and blankets. Volunteers helped keep children busy with drawing and crafts. Outside, two young women used sign-in sheets to check people in and out in orderly fashion. Nearby, a vocal menagerie of kenneled dogs and caged birds pined for their owners.

Nentvich, a widow who immigrated to America from the former Czechoslovakia 40 years ago, on Oct. 21 fled her home in the mountain town of Ramona when she saw flames licking up from a dry creek bed behind her house. She did not know whether her home survived, nor did several families WORLD spoke to in the Santana shelter.

Especially fearful were Rose Carillos, 40; her mother, Elena Lorta; and the Kelleys-Christopher, 58, and Melissa, 47. The families share a common bond: All live about a mile from each other in Wildcat Canyon and evacuated in the path of the Witch Creek fire. And all of their homes burned to the ground in the catastrophic wildfires that torched San Diego in 2003.

At that time, the Kelleys had little insurance and had to rebuild a little at a time using whatever money they could set aside. They were about 85 percent finished-and near bankruptcy-when they were evacuated again this week.

"It's hard to describe what it's like to face the possibility of rebuilding again," said Christopher Kelley. "We lost everything in 2003. I needed to change my clothes and I didn't have any clothes. I needed to brush my teeth and I didn't have a toothbrush. I needed to shave and I didn't have a razor."

Elena Lorta in 2003 also lost everything. "That's a feeling that stays with you for a long time," she said. "And to top it off, nobody cares. Nobody checked to see whether we had water. Nobody checked to see whether we had a place to use the toilet."

Fleeing the Witch Creek fire, the families ran into each other at a Circle K. Kelley said to Lorta, "We're too old to be doing this again." He was only half-joking.

President Bush has declared Southern California a major disaster area. That will enable fire victims to apply for temporary-housing grants, home repairs, and low-cost loans. Officials blame most of the disaster on hot desert winds-known as Santa Anas-combined with a crackle-dry landscape and near-zero humidity.

But arson is suspected in at least two blazes in Orange and Riverside counties. Area police toughened their stand against copycat fires, arresting one man suspected of setting a small blaze. In San Bernardino County, a man fled when officers approached him to see if he might be trying to set a fire. A car chase ended when one officer opened fire, killing the suspect.

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