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A year after Calif. wildfires, recovery is scattered

Insurance, land disputes among delays

SAN DIEGO -- The wildfires that destroyed hundreds of homes in Southern California a year ago this month brought homeowners in San Diego's well-to-do Scripps Ranch section closer together. They negotiated with contractors as a group, figuring that would be the quickest, cheapest way to rebuild.

Sixty miles to the east, though, in the mountain community of Harrison Park, the disaster turned friends into enemies. When homeowners applied for building permits, they discovered their property lines were not where they thought, the result of poor land surveys done decades ago.

The confusion has stymied the rebuilding.

''Neighbor has gone against neighbor, husband has gone against wife," said Neva Anderson, 83, who was told that her property line slices through the middle of her former home. She is now living in a camper in her driveway, with no plans to rebuild.

The tales of Scripps Ranch and Harrison Park depict two extremes in the effort to recover from the most destructive wildfires in recent California history. In many ways, the pace of recovery has come down to where people live.

Urban neighborhoods are rebuilding more quickly, bolstered by higher household incomes, better roads and sewers, and tight-knit organizations that know how to pressure government officials and insurance companies.

Mountain villages have lagged, hampered by haphazard construction and a go-it-alone spirit that has left residents fending for themselves.

The wildfires raced across five Southern California counties. When the smoke had cleared, 24 people were dead, more than 3,600 homes had been destroyed and 750,000 acres had burned.

A year later, only 145 of the 2,516 homes lost in San Diego County -- the hardest-hit area -- have been rebuilt. Construction permits have been issued for 837 more dwellings.

Though the numbers may appear low, it is rare for anyone to rebuild in less than a year after a major disaster. California Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi said it took three to five years for most people to rebuild after the 1991 Oakland fire destroyed more than 3,000 homes.

Across Southern California, rebuilding efforts have been hampered by heavy demand for contractors and building supplies. Lumber prices have increased 8 percent since the summer, and the cost of steel reinforcing bars has jumped 35 percent. Also, hundreds of homeowners have complained that their insurance failed to cover their losses.

While some obstacles to rebuilding are common throughout the region, the differences between urban subdivisions and mountain villages may be just as important.

Consider Scripps Ranch, a community of 30,000 people where homes sold for an average of $758,529 in September. Only six of the 312 homes lost to the fire have been rebuilt. But the city has issued permits for 251 more. These days, its winding streets are busy with construction crews and lined with partially built houses.

The Scripps Ranch Civic Association -- which pumps out 100-page monthly newsletters covering everything from the Girl Scouts to youth basketball games -- encouraged homeowners to negotiate with contractors as a group. Eventually, 81 property owners settled on a builder called Stonefield Development.

Stonefield offered seven floor plans, priced from $93 to $98 a square foot -- about half of what many custom builders were asking. The first of the 81 homes will be finished in January, with the rest completed by April, said Julie Pack, vice president of sales and marketing.

Scripps Ranch homeowners also showed some political savvy, increasing pressure on elected officials. Garamendi took a tougher line with insurance companies after about 300 people packed a Scripps Ranch school auditorium in April to demand he do so.

Scripps Ranch residents also helped Garamendi win passage of legislation to speed the rebuilding and ease the burdens on homeowners.

''Some other communities have modest organizations but nothing like Scripps Ranch," Garamendi said.

Also, the San Diego City Council bowed to Scripps Ranch residents and overrode the fire chief by shelving many proposals for stiffer building codes. In mountain towns, however, homeowners are mostly on their own.

In Harrison Park, which lost 170 homes, many lots are still littered with old stoves, broken concrete slabs and other debris. Many displaced homeowners are still living in campers; some are in tents.

Unlike Scripps Ranch -- where about 70 percent of the homes were built after 1980 and meticulously planned -- Harrison Park got its start in the 1920s and slowly became a hodgepodge of odd-shaped lots with no two houses looking alike. Quail, wild turkey and deer roamed the forested hills of pine, cedar, oak and manzanita trees.

The confusion over property lines brought reconstruction to a standstill. In May, county Supervisor Dianne Jacob split the community into a dozen sections and asked each to settle its differences. She is still waiting for their solutions.

Manuel Machado, 69, who lives on property his wife's family has owned since 1926, is livid about one neighbor who claims 40 feet of what Machado thought was his land. He figures he is entitled to 20 feet of another neighbor's property but is reluctant to make a claim.

''Somewhere along the way, someone is going to get squeezed," he said. ''No one can stay where they are. They all have to move over and destroy one another."

Harrison Park has a host of other problems, from poor sewage to a remote location that takes construction crews time to reach. Many people simply do not have the money to rebuild and are living in campers or prefab homes, with winter coming. And the living-expense payments that some insurance companies issue for a year after a disaster are about to run out.

Machado looked out the window of the $41,000 prefabricated home he bought with insurance money and counted 10 campers parked on a burned hillside.

''They're going to be very cold," he said. ''You have to go through an awful lot of propane to heat those up, and it's very depressing to stay in a little box like that."

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