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Southland Wildfire Response Shifts to Assistance for Victims

Federal and state agencies open a center in Camarillo for those affected by the Piru and Simi blazes. Southern California death toll reaches 22.

November 04, 2003|Fred Alvarez, Tony Perry and Jack Leonard | Times Staff Writers

With two Ventura County brush fires all but out Monday, state and federal officials turned their attention to disaster relief, opening an assistance center for victims of the Simi and Piru blazes.

Elsewhere in fire-ravaged Southern California, the body of Novato firefighter Steven Rucker was escorted in a solemn procession of fire engines in San Diego before being flown to Marin County, as the death toll from the Southland's fires rose by two to 22.

A continuing spate of cool, damp weather helped suppress the blazes, which were largely contained after blackening more than 740,000 acres of timber and brush and destroying more than 3,500 homes.

In Ventura County, nearly two dozen representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Small Business Administration and a host of other agencies began staffing the assistance center at 730 Paseo Camarillo in Camarillo. The center, one of nine set up throughout Southern California, will be open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday November 05, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Firefighter -- A photo caption in Tuesday's California section referred to the casket of Steven Rucker, the Novato firefighter overtaken by flames last week near Julian, being wheeled aboard a transport plane. The casket was being carried.

Financial aid is not directly provided at the centers; fire victims seeking such assistance must register with FEMA by calling (800) 621-3362.

However, representatives will answer questions about housing assistance, low-interest disaster loans and other support aimed at getting fire victims back on their feet. So far, FEMA has received 120 applications in Ventura County for disaster assistance.

"Unfortunately, we can't make people whole again -- the government can't afford to do that," said FEMA spokesman John Treanor, adding that the Ventura County center will stay open as long as necessary. "We just kind of want to start them on the way back to recovery."

Other groups and agencies have stepped forward to help victims of wildfires that consumed about 172,000 acres near Simi Valley and Fillmore and caused more than $20 million in damage. Those blazes destroyed 38 residences and damaged at least a dozen others.

The Ventura County assessor's office has announced that owners of property suffering more than $10,000 in fire damage may ask to defer payment of their next property tax installment and apply for reassessment of their properties within 12 months of the damage.

And the American Red Cross announced Monday that it had received enough pledges and donations -- about $5.9 million -- to take care of victims of the Southern California wildfires and asked that future contributions go to the organization's general Disaster Relief Fund.

In Ventura County, individuals, corporations and foundations pledged more than $600,000. Major donors turned out Monday at the Red Cross' local executive headquarters in Camarillo to present their contributions.

"Southern California is a remarkable place, and the generosity of our communities has been overwhelming," said Jason Smith, chief executive officer of the American Red Cross of Ventura County. "We've watched our neighbors come together in support of those who lost their homes or who were otherwise affected."

In the meantime, firefighters in Ventura County continued to monitor hot spots in the Piru blaze and conduct mop-up operations in the Simi fire. By Monday, more than 2,200 firefighters who had been working those fires had been sent home or reassigned.

The Simi fire was 100% contained after burning 107,568 acres from Santa Paula to northeast of the Ventura County line. And the Piru blaze was 85% contained Monday, as 126 firefighters continued working the fire lines.

As hot spots dissipated in the mountains of Ventura County, federal wildlife biologists got into the backcountry and checked on the California condors reintroduced there as part of a decade-long recovery program. All but one of the 41 birds were accounted for, said the biologists, who have equipped each bird with a radio transmitter.

"The condors seem to have weathered the firestorm and are back to business as usual," said Marc Weitzel, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist.

Cold and damp weather that moved in over the weekend became the firefighters' greatest ally in battling the blazes. But those conditions also made for some tricky operations.

Three firefighters assigned to the Piru blaze became stranded Sunday evening as they attempted to retrieve radio equipment from a remote mountain peak. The firefighters -- two from the U.S. Forest Service and the third with the California Department of Forestry -- had been flown by helicopter to snow-covered Cobblestone Peak deep in the Sespe Wilderness.

Minutes after the three were dropped off, the weather took a turn for the worse and cloud cover prevented the helicopter from returning. By 8 p.m., a Ventura County sheriff's rescue helicopter was sent to the area, and the crew was able to locate the firefighters using night vision goggles. That helicopter also was unable to land, so the firefighters had to be hoisted into the aircraft on tethers.

The firefighters were wet and cold, but otherwise uninjured.

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