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The State | SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA FIRES

Red Tape Adds to Victims' Woes

November 15, 2003|Kenneth Reich | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — The frustrations of losing one's home to the Southern California wildfires and then beginning the struggle to finance and build a replacement were starkly in evidence at an officially sponsored workshop in the Scripps Ranch neighborhood this week.

More than 100 owners of homes burned by the huge Cedar fire showed up Thursday for the two-hour session, and about 20 of them went public to vent their feelings. Most said the disaster is by no means behind them.

As federal, state and local governmental representatives lent sympathetic ears, and representatives of the big insurance companies hovered in the background, the homeowners said everything seems extremely complicated.

"This is already a bureaucratic nightmare," said resident Paul N. Bushard.

He explained that he had followed the advice of officials and applied for aid, beyond what he would get through his insurance policy, from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"But I got a rejection, telling me that I should only approach them when I had settled with my insurer," Bushard said.

"In the meantime, they told me I only had 60 days to appeal the rejection. So now I have to spend hours drafting an appeal, even before I can apply for anything."

Gwendolyn Gunn, a FEMA representative present at the workshop, told Bushard he would not be required to appeal.

State Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi remarked dryly, "It appears you received an inartful drafting of the information."

The Scripps Ranch workshop was one of four; others have been held in Claremont, Moorpark and San Bernardino.

Some fire victims said they had already learned that their insurance settlements would not be enough to replace their homes.

"I'm going to get $157,000," Barbara Meyer said at the Scripps Ranch session. "No one can build a home for that."

Jeff Lewis asked why San Diego County fire departments had not tried to prevent such fires by using controlled burns. He and his neighbors had certainly appealed for them, he said.

Two speakers told of being misinformed about the progress of the fires. One said she had been advised at 11:30 p.m. to go to bed, only to see the fire come over the hill and ignite her home four hours later.

A woman said she wanted to put a temporary shelter on her property but had been told San Diego County would not permit that. County building personnel were not at the workshop, but the audience was told they would be invited the next time.

Others wanted to know whether the estimated $2 billion in losses from the fires would result in higher insurance premiums for all Southern Californians.

Garamendi said insurers would first have to prove an increase was justified. Already, he said, a portion of insurance premiums is earmarked to defray the costs of such disasters.

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