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SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA FIRES

San Diego Damage Inspectors Begin Task

October 29, 2003|Kimi Yoshino | Times Staff Writer

CREST, Calif. — The day had begun before dawn Tuesday for two San Diego County building department officials, whose inspectors face the daunting job of assessing the damage of a fire still burning out of control.

In neighborhood after neighborhood, Paul McKeighan, building supervisor for the county, and Phil Bunn, chief of its building division, stepped gingerly through the ashen remains of people's lives. They moved with the gravitas of undertakers.

Their task, and that of 11 two-person teams fanned out over the scorched county, was to search the rubble for key facts: two-story or one? Stucco or wood? Tile roof or shake? Armed with global positioning systems and digital cameras, they paced out the square footage on concrete pads still smoking from unextinguished embers.

It was Day 2 of a process that will stretch into months or years, ending when residents request permits to rebuild. In the meantime, the data will be used by emergency aid officials, insurers and tax assessors.

The best the inspectors could hope for was a preliminary assessment of the scope of ruin.

Officials said as many as 1,200 homes in San Diego County may have been destroyed. And even before the blazes struck, the building department was short 10 people in the third fastest-growing county in the state.

Bunn himself had been evacuated Sunday night as flames approached his Tierrasanta neighborhood, and he was stuck at a desk in the first days of the fire. Now he wanted to see the damage for himself.

"You have to have respect for everybody's property," he said, "treat everything with tact and respect."

Intermittently speechless, he and McKeighan drove up La Cresta Road in the unincorporated community of Crest, passing street after street burned in the Cedar fire. The process would go slowly; one team saw only 11 homes in five hours.

By 1 p.m., Bunn and McKeighan looked dazed.

"The sheer magnitude of this is unbelievable," said McKeighan. "We will go to every lot the fire has touched. Every one."

As they continued up La Cresta Road, McKeighan glanced repeatedly at his watch. The smoke had left the sky so dark, he said, "I keep thinking it's later."

The pair slowed the car and turned down a narrow, winding street. McKeighan pointed at a gray yard where an exercise bike was one of the few discernible casualties.

"That's a garage," he said. "See that equipment? That was somebody's workshop."

They drove down the hill to rendezvous with others. Someone pointed to what used to be a triple-wide mobile home atop a hill. It had had a tile roof, fire-resistant siding and water sprinklers. A round, red fire alarm could still be seen lying in the rubble. There was good clearance around the structure -- everything had been done right, but still it burned down.

"I guess in some cases," McKeighan said, "God doesn't care. It just went down."

Times staff writer Nancy Wride contributed to this report.

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