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Zuma Press/NewsCom

After the blaze

Disaster | Eighteen months since the deadly Harris fire, San Diego faith-based groups and volunteers find one thing left unscorched: Need

Issue: "Geo-gizmos," April 25, 2009

DULZURA, Calif.-City folk sometimes wonder why anyone would live way out here in the sticks where it snows in the winter, broils in the summer, and often burns -literally-in between. But sitting here on a hay bale with Elsie Campbell, looking out over the valley at the foot of Echo Mountain, the answer becomes clear: It's a little helping of heaven.

Low knolls and rolling hills form a cozy ring around the Campbells' land, which is still green this time of year and dotted here and there with flowers, early hints of spring. Overhead, a cerulean sky arcs over the valley like the lid on a candy dish. I hold still and marvel at the quiet: not a hint of city din. In fact, it's a good bet most San Diego County residents don't know that out here is, well, out here.

Going on 74, Elsie has asked me to sit with her on the hay bale so she can rest her bones. Over her red flower-print dress, she wears a short-sleeved denim shirt embroidered with tiny daisies. Like a favorite aunt, Elsie radiates comfort. If she weren't living in a FEMA trailer, I suspect she would produce a platter of freshly baked cookies for us to munch on while we chat.

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"When we bought the place, the only kind of trees out here were live oak and sycamores," Elsie says, peering through wire-rim specs at the 40 acres she and her husband, Steve, turned into Echo Mountain Bible Camp 33 years ago. She points to a willow-like tree at our 2 o'clock. "We put in that California pepper tree. And when we first moved in, we went out and bought a whole flat of a hundred eucalyptus seedlings. Planted them all."

Here Elsie smiles ruefully: "We didn't know any better."

What she means is that because of their natural oil, eucalyptus trees like to burn.

And burn they did on Oct. 21, 2007. Echo Mountain Bible Camp and the adjacent back-country towns of Dulzura, Jamul, Portrero, Deerhorn Valley, Tecate, and Barrett Junction burned like a string of small suns. That week, 20 wildfires consumed 575 square miles of Southern California, killing 10 people and destroying more than 1,600 homes and commercial structures. In San Diego County alone, half a million residents received voluntary or mandatory evacuation notices, resulting in the largest fire evacuation in U.S. history.

The disaster was big news then. Now, though, no roiling clouds of smoke draw camera crews; no sirens crack the country quiet. There is no nightly news footage of shell-shocked homeowners poking through charred ruins. But 18 months after the flames died, the Harris Fire that scorched eastern San Diego County left one thing behind: Need. And long after government agencies folded their tents, a coalition of faith-based organizations (FBOs) and community and private groups is still laboring to meet it.

"I don't think people understand that we still have people in this area who are hungry," said Brenda Wise, coordinator of the Harris Fire Community Recovery Team (CRT). "We still do a mobile food pantry every Wednesday, and about 50 or 60 people show up. They don't have to do that anywhere else in the county."

Here, fire recovery has lagged behind efforts in more moneyed northern county enclaves like Rancho Santa Fe, a suburb of San Diego and the wealthiest zip code in America when measured by concentration of million-dollar homes.

In both the back country and the city proper, 80 percent of burned-out residents remained in the area after the 2007 fires, according to an August 2008 assessment published by the San Diego Foundation (SDF). But while a little less than half of city residents have not yet begun rebuilding, nearly two-thirds of back-country dwellers have not. In the city, people who have not rebuilt are living in rented accommodations such as apartments. In the back country, displaced folks are living in trailers. At the time of the SDF report, at least nine were living in their cars.

On March 20, outside a one-story clapboard house off the gravel shoulder of Highway 94, about 100 aid workers and Harris Fire-area residents gathered to celebrate two things: overall recovery progress to date, and the completion by Mennonite Disaster Services (MDS) of Elsie and Steve Campbells' new home.

Among those gathered were representatives from the San Diego Foundation, a major civic donor for the long-term recovery operation in partnership with the San Diego Chargers, the Salvation Army, United Way, Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC) workers, MDS, and Recover San Diego, an ecumenical coalition of relief workers and services.

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