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Homes Spared, Lost in Fires' Random Destruction

San Diego authorities say wildfires have destroyed more than 1,700 homes.
Scott Horsley, NPR
San Diego authorities say wildfires have destroyed more than 1,700 homes.
Hear Erik Anderson report the wildfires' impact on California businesses on <em>Morning Edition</em>
Hear John Nielson explain why the Santa Ana winds have been so destructive on <em>Morning Edition</em>
Hear a wildfire evacuee talk about her escape from Lakeside, Calif., on <em>Morning Edition</em>

President Bush plans to travel to San Diego Thursday to visit the scene of this week's massive wildfires.

More than a half-million people were forced out of their homes because of the fires — the nation's largest evacuation since Hurricane Katrina.

Federal officials are eager to show a more responsive face to this disaster, which has already destroyed more than 1,700 homes.

Wildfires are still burning in large parts of San Diego, but some residents have been allowed to return to areas that were spared by the flames.

San Diego Neighborhood Hit Hard

You can still make out the "Happy Halloween" banner hanging from the balcony of a house on Aguamiel Road in northern San Diego. But most of the word happy has been blown away by the same Santa Ana winds that set fire to many of the other houses on the block.

This area was one of the hardest hit within the city. But even here, the damage is uneven. One smoking wall is all that is left of house. Next door, even the rose petals are barely singed.

Authorities are not letting residents back into this neighborhood, except for quick visits with a police escort. After a nervous night in a hotel, Todd and Colleen Wong were thrilled to find their house still standing.

"Oh, we were so overjoyed," Todd Wong said.

"We didn't know until 10 minutes ago that our house was here," Colleen Wong added.

The Wong's retrieved a couple of duffle bags full of belongings, then headed back to the hotel to wait for an all clear. Todd Wong said someone must have been looking out for them.

"Looking at the devastation around here, we were real lucky," he said. "We rolled out of here without anything at 5 o'clock in the morning. We woke up, and we had four minutes. It was crazy."

Down the street, utility worker Daniel Bias marked the location of underground gas lines. Authorities want to make sure and gas leaks are repaired before residents are allowed to return for good.

In the meantime, City Councilman Brian Maienschein has been walking the neighborhood, compiling a grim list of addresses where homes are no longer standing.

"As you can see, this is just the list that I've made," he said. "What would you say, there's close to 100 homes on here. So it's very, very significant."

Maienschein has been through this before.

County, City Coordinate Efforts

Four years ago this week, many of the homes in his district were destroyed when another firestorm swept through San Diego. At the time, there complaints that city and county governments were not cooperating, and that residents received little warning about the deadly blaze.

This time around, authorities used an automated telephone system to evacuate hundreds of thousands of people, and that may have saved lives. Maienschein said the local governments have also presented a more united front.

"From what I've witnessed, the city and county have worked very well together," Maienshein said. "I think that's been a real plus."

The state and federal governments are also eager to show they are doing their part.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff paid a high-profile visit to evacuees at San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium Tuesday. He promised a "full court press" by the federal government, both in confronting the immediate fire threat and rebuilding afterwards.

"I know there's a lot of anxiety on the part of people about what they're going to face when they go home," Chertoff said. "I know there's a request for a disaster declaration in the works, and as soon as that gets up there and gets approved, we will be working very closely with you to restore the communities that have been hurt by these terrible fires."

Among other things, a disaster declaration allows the federal government to provide individual assistance, emergency loans and help from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

David Paulison, a former firefighter who now heads the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said the government has come a long way since the last time thousands of Americans were forced to take shelter in a football stadium.

"Somebody asked me earlier, 'What was the difference between what happened in Katrina and what's happening here today?' What we learned after Hurricane Katrina [was] we have to work together. We have to be organized," Paulison said.

Local businesses and individuals have also stepped in, donating truckloads of food, water, diapers and other supplies.

So far, there has been little second-guessing of the government's response. But even as more and more firefighters pour into California, hard choices have to be made.

One state fire chief said with so many fires burning across Southern California, there are more homes in danger than there are fire engines to defend them.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.
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