In fire zone, lots of experience

Veterans of earlier fires are sharing practical lessons on recovery and rebuilding.

On Saturday, David Kessler helped his brother sift through the ashes of his home without stepping on whatever valuables last week's wildfire may have spared. Mr. Kessler, after all, is a veteran at this: His own home burned four years ago during another San Diego-area firestorm.

Kessler, a gate installer, is savvy about everything from insurance claims to building permits. He's already making plans to share his wisdom via a mentoring program that will link former fire victims to new.

"I believe that what goes around comes around," says Kessler, whose brother plans to rebuild in the suburb of Poway. "I'm going to step up and help these people."

Like Kessler, many who lost homes in 2003 are reaching out to the latest wildfire victims with tips about how to cut red tape or find temporary housing

As communities plan to rebuild, the '03 fires are serving as blueprints for government officials, insurance agents. and construction crews. In essence, "we've had a colossal dress rehearsal," says a spokeswoman for Dianne Jacob, a county elected official.

This time around, San Diego County set up assistance centers much more quickly, opening some before evacuation orders were lifted. Within days, the city and county of San Diego waived building fees for those who wish to rebuild.

For the time being, though, rebuilding isn't the top priority on everyone's mind. Firefighters and emergency officials were still busy Sunday as fires continued to burn and threaten rural enclaves.

More than 1,300 homes were destroyed in San Diego County, where an area almost equal to one-half of Rhode Island was scorched. About 400 homes burned down elsewhere in southern California. (By contrast, the October 2003 fires destroyed more than 3,000 structures in San Diego County.)

An estimate of insured losses put damage at between $1 billion and $1.6 billion in the fire-ravaged region. As of Thursday evening, State Farm, California's largest insurer of homes and cars, had received more than 2,000 claims, according to Insurance Journal, and The Farmers Insurance Group of Companies, the second-largest insurer, reported it had received some 3,500 claims.

The value of homes in this part of the US remains largely in the land on which they sit, making rebuilding a virtual necessity from a financial perspective because insurance covers only reconstruction.

"If the home is worth $500,000, only $200,000 may be the house itself and $300,000 may be in the land," says San Diego financial adviser Rich Toscano. "And they'll have the mortgage on the whole $500,000. Basically, all they can do is rebuild at that point."

The distressed housing market here may actually help ease the recovery. Construction workers and contractors should be easy to find, and a glut of unsold houses may make it simple to find places to rent.

Still, no one expects the housing market to recover as a result. "It will basically take an industry that's doing horribly and make it do slightly less horribly," Mr. Toscano says.

Outsiders, of course, will wonder why anyone would want to return to a region that has suffered so much destruction by fire in recent years. In the big picture of a county of 1.1 million homes, however, the number of houses destroyed is tiny. And in a region where nearly everyone seems to be from somewhere else, fire victims love their neighborhoods, whether they're in suburban cul-de-sacs or backcountry ranches.

"I'm a lifer," says 50-something surfboard maker Rick Hamon as he sifted through the remnants of the 1920s-era house he called home for 30 years here in Del Dios (Spanish for "of the gods"), a small community of dirt roads and oak trees north of San Diego.

On Mr. Hamon's property, tall cactuses drooped into one another, victims of the heat's moisture-sucking power, while a solidified stream of gray molten aluminum from a 1971 motorcycle snaked along the ground. As a breeze blew white ashes into the air like confetti, Hamon walked to a grand, ancient oak that survived the fire while three homes just yards away burned to the ground. "I'm just happy to see the old tree made it," he says.

Insurance pitfalls

SAN DIEGO – If wildfire had again swept over his upscale home in a community surrounded by eucalyptus trees and sagebrush, as it did in 2003 during the so-called Cedar fire, J.P. Lapeyre was prepared for a fight – with insurance companies.

"It seems like every time a fire like this happens the insurance companies get together and try to figure out not how to make it easier for us, but how to pay the least amount possible to us," says Mr. Lapeyre, who in 2005 sued his insurer and the independent broker who sold him the policy, alleging negligence, breach of contract, and fraud for leading him to believe he was properly covered.

He eventually dropped the case, after waiting two years for it to be settled. But "the whole experience in 2003 was disappointing and frustrating as far as the insurance went," he says. "I really hope these people are prepared to do battle."

It didn't start out badly, he recounts. Almost immediately after his home was destroyed, his insurance company sent a check for "$2,000 or $3,000" to cover the basics, says Lapeyre. But after that, the California company made it hard on him and his family to replace their home and belongings, he says. In the end, the company told him the most he would receive was $168,075 – less than half of the estimated reconstruction cost of $448,000. Lapeyre waited almost two years for the suit to be settled as he rebuilt.

"People think they have full replacement value, but they need to look at their policy very carefully because more than likely they don't," he warns. "My advice is that you send every question to your [insurance] company in writing and that you take your policy out once a year and read it and update it."

By Candice Reed - Contributor

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