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De Luz Fire Victims in Hot Dispute With U.S.

November 20, 1987|TOM GORMAN | Times Staff Writer

Ruth Wright laughs about the trials of trying to rebuild a custom home and a family business that were burned to the ground in a huge brush fire. She laughs because the only alternative, she says, is to cry.

To recoup their losses and right their life, the Wrights have had to do battle with no less than the U.S. Navy and now the U.S. attorney's office.

Today, 2 1/2 years after the fire, she and her husband, Dick, live in a mobile home on the property, a three-acre plot of land in rural De Luz in the extreme northern reaches of San Diego County. Consider their predicament:

They have been unable to rebuild their home, a 16-sided dome-style structure, because it was underinsured.

Since the $35,000 fire insurance compensation wasn't enough to pay for the construction of a new home, the couple had to pay capital gains tax on the amount because they did not reinvest it in a new house within two years.

They could not qualify for a Small Business Administration loan to rebuild their business--an exotic nursery featuring cactus and succulents--because they had no collateral--namely, a house.

So they plowed the $35,000 compensation for their burned home into the business, including building a barn, so they could at least get their income flow restarted, albeit humbly. They are now waiting for funds to build a new home from the party responsible for the fire in the first place.

That party is Uncle Sam.

The fire devoured more than 8,425 acres of brush and fruit groves and destroyed two homes and several outbuildings in July, 1985. It was started by an exploding artillery shell during gunnery practice at neighboring Camp Pendleton.

All told, about a dozen property owners claimed they suffered $2.4 million in damages to their crops and buildings because of the fire, and they filed claims to recoup their losses with the Navy, landlord at Camp Pendleton.

In August, 1986--more than a year after the fire--the Navy finally offered settlements that totaled about one-third of the amount sought by the fire victims.

A major point of contention in the settlement request and settlement offer was the formula used in determining appropriate compensation. The property owners argued through their attorneys that they should receive replacement value for their crops, reflecting not only the cost of planting new trees but also taking into account how many years before the trees are producing fruit and the expense to be incurred in maintaining the groves to that point.

Lesser Amount Agreed On

The Navy, on the other hand, offered compensation based on the difference in what the property is worth with the groves, and without them--ignoring such factors as the expense in time and money in nurturing the groves to the point where they are income-producing.

Most of the property owners, frustrated by the delay of 13 months before seeing a single dollar in compensation, finally agreed to take the lesser amount just so they could get their lives back on track.

"We accepted the government's offer, which didn't come close to meeting our loss, because it had taken us so long just to get to that point," said Lois Cunningham, who lost five acres of oranges and avocados.

But the paper work to settle the claim was botched. "The original papers 2 1/2 years ago had my husband's name on it, and on the final papers, it had both our names on it, and so the papers had to be re-done," Cunningham said. "We expected our money two months ago, and we still haven't gotten it."

In the meantime, she said, the grove remains unplanted.

Four property owners in De Luz flatly refused to accept the government's settlement offers.

Lost 1,500 Trees

One of them is Alex Rigopoulos, who lost 1,500 avocado, citrus and exotic fruit trees in the blaze, which occurred during the same beastly hot weekend when 64 homes were destroyed and 20 more were badly damaged when fire swept up the sides of Mission Valley into Normal Heights. Most of those homes have since been rebuilt, but Rigopoulos is still waiting for compensation from the Camp Pendleton fire to replace even just one tree.

"You talk about being upset," he said. "Do you know what it is like to trust the government and, after nearly three years, still have no money to replant your grove?"

Rigopoulos sought $450,000 in damages, and was offered $123,000. A neighbor, Bill Thompson, also claimed losses of $450,000, and was offered $142,000 by the Navy. Both men are represented by Thompson's son, Los Angeles attorney Cary Thompson.

Said Rigopoulos of the drawn-out litigation:

"To say I'm frustrated is an understatement. This is ridiculous. It's absurd. They should have settled with everybody within a year. This is for the birds."

Cary Thompson said most of the property owners finally settled "out of sheer exasperation."

Lawsuits Filed

For those unwilling to accept the claim offers, which ranged from 15% to 55% of what was sought, lawsuits were then filed and the case turned over to the U.S. attorney's office in San Diego.

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