California's legacy of new beginnings

Residents vowing to rebuild after the fire line up for construction permits.

Some 20 years ago, Jeannie Woolman Albertson left the house-demolition business and stopped making jokes about being a "homewrecker." She moved to the San Diego backcountry, traded sledgehammers for country-dance lessons, and became accustomed to the friendly nudist camp next door and wayward cows in her front yard.

Now, barely a week after the largest fire in California history destroyed her home, Ms. Albertson is turning her mind back to her former career. But this time she'll be constructing a house, not tearing one down.

"I'm going to rebuild," she vows as she clutches a handful of forms outside a jam-packed assistance center for fire victims in Alpine near her home. "You don't want to let your neighbors down or show that you've given up."

Her reaction is a common one here. Across the fire-stricken neighborhoods of southern California, residents are digging in, not giving up. As Californians wait in long lines to pick up applications for building permits, learn about contractor fraud, and apply for construction loans, their persistence points to an enduring truth of disaster recovery. Whether Americans have faced hurricanes, tornadoes, or wildfires, they overwhelmingly rebuild where they were before, valuing the pride of community over the fear of destruction.

In California the ethic of renewal may be even more deeply rooted for two reasons: a landscape that perpetually erupts in natural disaster and a desire for new beginnings that has long been part of the state's identity.

"Both in reality and in imagination, California is prone to problems," says political scientist Tim Hodson of California State University, Sacramento. "Part of the mythology is that we'll rebuild and we'll rebuild better."

Many locals have a lot of work ahead. The Cedar Fire east of San Diego, like all the other large blazes in southern California, was expected to be under control Tuesday. In all, the fires destroyed more than 3,570 homes, total damage estimates exceed $2 billion. Insurance agents are just now entering some areas, and the process of surveying the damage could take weeks as fire inspectors poke through rubble, looking for white ash - the tell-tale sign of a flammable wooden shingle roof - or pieces of tile and stucco.

In the Alpine area, 25 miles east of downtown San Diego, residents are facing greater financial challenges than elsewhere. While the wildfire destroyed pockets of wealth here, it also ravaged dozens of mobile homes and ramshackle farmhouses.

Residents have complained bitterly that the media downplayed the massive destruction in their neighborhood in favor of more upscale suburbs, although that changed this week. Governor-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger visited the area on Monday, and was scheduled to return Tuesday with President Bush and Gov. Gray Davis.

Eventually, insurance payments will help with financial hurdles, as will government loans and San Diego County's elimination of building fees for victims, which will save each an average of about $2,200.

But both the wealthy and the poor will have to cope with one potential problem: a shortage of contractors, electricians, plumbers, and construction supplies.

Up on Cuyamaca Mountain, near Alpine, neighbors are forming a small coalition to guarantee that contractors won't forget them. Fire destroyed nearly all the 100 homes on the mountain, a popular winter getaway that provides many San Diego children with their first glimpse of snow.

The neighbors plan to share resources and try for group deals on housing supplies, says furniture builder Roger Behrendt, who lost his home, his father's home, and a guest house. "We can sit here and weep or we can sit here and do something smart," he says.

He acknowledges that fire safety will be a top priority for him and his neighbors. For some, though, the surest solution might be to simply move away. Scott Anders, for one, isn't sure if he wants to return. The tall, redheaded energy consultant spent part of Saturday picking through tables of donated mouthwash, pillows, and other supplies at a Masonic Lodge in nearby El Cajon, remembering how his family barely escaped an early-morning inferno. Flames licked at his mother-in-law's car as she fled his house, and four of his neighbors died.

Now, Mr. Anders's thoughts are filled with second-guessing - maybe he should have spent more time working on brush removal or an evacuation plan. "We knew we were living in a tinderbox," he says.

Still, most people affected by the fire want to return to their friends and neighbors - even if there aren't any buildings left, insurance agents and other experts say. "People have a very strong attachment to place and neighborhood, and a disaster can make that attachment even greater," says Kathleen Tierney, a University of Delaware sociologist.

Jan Urbach goes so far as to claim she will stay no matter what. She has lived in the mountains above San Bernardino for six years now, and as of earlier this week, she still didn't know if her house had been destroyed or left untouched. But she says she will do whatever is necessary to stay at least another five years - and ensure that her eighth-grade daughter, Loni Swartz, graduates from high school with her current classmates.

"When we were driving down during the evacuation she was crying and saying, 'I don't want to start over with school,'" says Urbach, standing before a mobile Allstate insurance center as her daughter holds the Dalmatian puppy they bought shortly before the fires came. "I won't be moving off the mountain for at least five years. That's where her friends are."

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