After the blaze

"After the blaze" Continued...

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

The Mennonites rolled into Dulzura in December and are here for the long haul. Two years ago, Pennsylvania-based MDS helped rebuild burned homes in Julian, Calif., a historic mining town tucked into the Cuyamaca Mountains about 50 miles northeast of Dulzura. As recovery efforts faltered in the Harris Fire area, the CRT "asked us to come back," said MDS project director Charlotte Hardt. "They liked the quality of the houses we built in Julian and they liked the attitude of the volunteers that came."

"This county would not have recovered as effectively as it has without the help of faith-based groups," said Linda Chase of the Community Recovery Team. Long-term recovery is a unique undertaking that requires a special breed of aid workers, Chase added: "Faith-based volunteers wait to come until they're needed and they'll be here as long as it takes."

Hardt, 68, a retired hospital administrator, tries to serve with MDS for about two months every year. She is what's known in MDS lingo as a "long termer"-a volunteer who stays on-site for a month or more. Other long-termers here hail from Virginia, Oregon, Washington, and Canada. Over the past four months, groups of short-termers have pitched in with the Mennonites for a week at a time, including a group of Old Order Amish who arrived by train. (The Amish sometimes bend their ban on modern transportation, in this case for a mission of mercy.)

What motivates the Mennonites to serve?

"Faith without works is dead," Hardt says simply. "We see ourselves as the hands and feet of Jesus."

On the Campbell property, those hands and feet built from scratch an 852-square-foot, two-bedroom house to replace the 1,900-square-foot house the fire consumed. The flames devoured both of the camp's bunkhouses, a restroom, a meeting room, and a maintenance shed. Only a second restroom, a water storage building, and-strangely-a tree house survived.

While the Mennonites worked on the rebuild, other FBOs helped with land-clearing. The day before I visited, Titus and Debbi Davis, members of Granite Springs Christian Reformed Church near Sacramento, whacked weeds and thinned out wild tangles of manzanita. At 51 years apiece, the Davises are the youngest members of the CRWRC team; the oldest is 70. This is Mrs. Davis' first mission trip of any kind and it has produced for her both the joy of service and a glimpse at the bureaucratic conundrums fire victims still face.

Because of the topography and high wildfire risk, insurance premiums are so high as to be cost-prohibitive for many back-country residents. Many who live here exist on fixed incomes. Others inherited property here but can't afford to insure it. Of 305 homes lost in the Harris Fire, about half were uninsured and another 40 underinsured. Homeowners can't get permits to rebuild without insurance. And now, insurers won't underwrite until owners have created around their homesites 50 to 100 feet of "defensible space"-a cleared area that can act as a firebreak.

Some insurers are demanding as much as 300 feet. "That's very tricky if a person's property line falls before the 300-foot line," Mrs. Davis said. "That property is not under their control. This is really just the insurer's way of saying, 'We want to make this really difficult for you.'"

That's just one brand of insurance trouble. Chuck Wagner, 45, thought he had plenty of coverage. "I thought I was doing the right thing, the responsible thing, getting homeowners insurance," said Wagner, a ruddy-faced, 45-year-old wearing a San Diego Chargers ball cap.

But after the fire, when he tried to make a claim, the insurer tried to "come up short" on the settlement. "I had to get an attorney to make the insurance company live up to what it had promised," he said. Still, as opposing lawyers butted heads, Wagner's house still lay in ashes. And because his property was insured, nonprofits and government agencies were reluctant to help him. "I felt like I was prejudiced against because I did have insurance," he said.

A tall and articulate young man named Keith Twigg is coordinating interaction between secular relief groups working the Harris Fire and short-term, faith-based volunteers like the Davises and CRWRC. Twigg, 33, serves as project coordinator for Recover San Diego, an ecumenical coalition of faith-based groups in the county.

His passion for the job was forged in the wildfires that ravaged the county in October 2003. About two weeks after those fires, Twigg, who then worked at The Rock Church in San Diego, traveled to the badly burned mountain town of Ramona, Calif. Sitting at a meeting of church representatives that had gathered to coordinate area relief efforts, two facts struck Twigg: One, it was the first time these groups had ever come together. And two, they were only coming together after the fires. "I thought, 'As the Christian community, we can do better than this,'" he said.


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