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After the blaze

Eighteen months since the deadly Harris fire, San Diego faith-based groups and volunteers find one thing left unscorched: Need

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After the blaze
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DULZURA, Calif.-City folk sometimes wonder why anyone would live way out here in the sticks where it snows in the winter, broils in the summer, and often burns -literally-in between. But sitting here on a hay bale with Elsie Campbell, looking out over the valley at the foot of Echo Mountain, the answer becomes clear: It's a little helping of heaven.

Low knolls and rolling hills form a cozy ring around the Campbells' land, which is still green this time of year and dotted here and there with flowers, early hints of spring. Overhead, a cerulean sky arcs over the valley like the lid on a candy dish. I hold still and marvel at the quiet: not a hint of city din. In fact, it's a good bet most San Diego County residents don't know that out here is, well, out here.

Going on 74, Elsie has asked me to sit with her on the hay bale so she can rest her bones. Over her red flower-print dress, she wears a short-sleeved denim shirt embroidered with tiny daisies. Like a favorite aunt, Elsie radiates comfort. If she weren't living in a FEMA trailer, I suspect she would produce a platter of freshly baked cookies for us to munch on while we chat.

"When we bought the place, the only kind of trees out here were live oak and sycamores," Elsie says, peering through wire-rim specs at the 40 acres she and her husband, Steve, turned into Echo Mountain Bible Camp 33 years ago. She points to a willow-like tree at our 2 o'clock. "We put in that California pepper tree. And when we first moved in, we went out and bought a whole flat of a hundred eucalyptus seedlings. Planted them all."

Here Elsie smiles ruefully: "We didn't know any better."

What she means is that because of their natural oil, eucalyptus trees like to burn.

And burn they did on Oct. 21, 2007. Echo Mountain Bible Camp and the adjacent back-country towns of Dulzura, Jamul, Portrero, Deerhorn Valley, Tecate, and Barrett Junction burned like a string of small suns. That week, 20 wildfires consumed 575 square miles of Southern California, killing 10 people and destroying more than 1,600 homes and commercial structures. In San Diego County alone, half a million residents received voluntary or mandatory evacuation notices, resulting in the largest fire evacuation in U.S. history.

The disaster was big news then. Now, though, no roiling clouds of smoke draw camera crews; no sirens crack the country quiet. There is no nightly news footage of shell-shocked homeowners poking through charred ruins. But 18 months after the flames died, the Harris Fire that scorched eastern San Diego County left one thing behind: Need. And long after government agencies folded their tents, a coalition of faith-based organizations (FBOs) and community and private groups is still laboring to meet it.

"I don't think people understand that we still have people in this area who are hungry," said Brenda Wise, coordinator of the Harris Fire Community Recovery Team (CRT). "We still do a mobile food pantry every Wednesday, and about 50 or 60 people show up. They don't have to do that anywhere else in the county."

Here, fire recovery has lagged behind efforts in more moneyed northern county enclaves like Rancho Santa Fe, a suburb of San Diego and the wealthiest zip code in America when measured by concentration of million-dollar homes.

In both the back country and the city proper, 80 percent of burned-out residents remained in the area after the 2007 fires, according to an August 2008 assessment published by the San Diego Foundation (SDF). But while a little less than half of city residents have not yet begun rebuilding, nearly two-thirds of back-country dwellers have not. In the city, people who have not rebuilt are living in rented accommodations such as apartments. In the back country, displaced folks are living in trailers. At the time of the SDF report, at least nine were living in their cars.

On March 20, outside a one-story clapboard house off the gravel shoulder of Highway 94, about 100 aid workers and Harris Fire-area residents gathered to celebrate two things: overall recovery progress to date, and the completion by Mennonite Disaster Services (MDS) of Elsie and Steve Campbells' new home.

Among those gathered were representatives from the San Diego Foundation, a major civic donor for the long-term recovery operation in partnership with the San Diego Chargers, the Salvation Army, United Way, Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC) workers, MDS, and Recover San Diego, an ecumenical coalition of relief workers and services.

The Mennonites rolled into Dulzura in December and are here for the long haul. Two years ago, Pennsylvania-based MDS helped rebuild burned homes in Julian, Calif., a historic mining town tucked into the Cuyamaca Mountains about 50 miles northeast of Dulzura. As recovery efforts faltered in the Harris Fire area, the CRT "asked us to come back," said MDS project director Charlotte Hardt. "They liked the quality of the houses we built in Julian and they liked the attitude of the volunteers that came."

"This county would not have recovered as effectively as it has without the help of faith-based groups," said Linda Chase of the Community Recovery Team. Long-term recovery is a unique undertaking that requires a special breed of aid workers, Chase added: "Faith-based volunteers wait to come until they're needed and they'll be here as long as it takes."

Hardt, 68, a retired hospital administrator, tries to serve with MDS for about two months every year. She is what's known in MDS lingo as a "long termer"-a volunteer who stays on-site for a month or more. Other long-termers here hail from Virginia, Oregon, Washington, and Canada. Over the past four months, groups of short-termers have pitched in with the Mennonites for a week at a time, including a group of Old Order Amish who arrived by train. (The Amish sometimes bend their ban on modern transportation, in this case for a mission of mercy.)

What motivates the Mennonites to serve?

"Faith without works is dead," Hardt says simply. "We see ourselves as the hands and feet of Jesus."

On the Campbell property, those hands and feet built from scratch an 852-square-foot, two-bedroom house to replace the 1,900-square-foot house the fire consumed. The flames devoured both of the camp's bunkhouses, a restroom, a meeting room, and a maintenance shed. Only a second restroom, a water storage building, and-strangely-a tree house survived.

While the Mennonites worked on the rebuild, other FBOs helped with land-clearing. The day before I visited, Titus and Debbi Davis, members of Granite Springs Christian Reformed Church near Sacramento, whacked weeds and thinned out wild tangles of manzanita. At 51 years apiece, the Davises are the youngest members of the CRWRC team; the oldest is 70. This is Mrs. Davis' first mission trip of any kind and it has produced for her both the joy of service and a glimpse at the bureaucratic conundrums fire victims still face.

Because of the topography and high wildfire risk, insurance premiums are so high as to be cost-prohibitive for many back-country residents. Many who live here exist on fixed incomes. Others inherited property here but can't afford to insure it. Of 305 homes lost in the Harris Fire, about half were uninsured and another 40 underinsured. Homeowners can't get permits to rebuild without insurance. And now, insurers won't underwrite until owners have created around their homesites 50 to 100 feet of "defensible space"-a cleared area that can act as a firebreak.

Some insurers are demanding as much as 300 feet. "That's very tricky if a person's property line falls before the 300-foot line," Mrs. Davis said. "That property is not under their control. This is really just the insurer's way of saying, 'We want to make this really difficult for you.'"

That's just one brand of insurance trouble. Chuck Wagner, 45, thought he had plenty of coverage. "I thought I was doing the right thing, the responsible thing, getting homeowners insurance," said Wagner, a ruddy-faced, 45-year-old wearing a San Diego Chargers ball cap.

But after the fire, when he tried to make a claim, the insurer tried to "come up short" on the settlement. "I had to get an attorney to make the insurance company live up to what it had promised," he said. Still, as opposing lawyers butted heads, Wagner's house still lay in ashes. And because his property was insured, nonprofits and government agencies were reluctant to help him. "I felt like I was prejudiced against because I did have insurance," he said.

A tall and articulate young man named Keith Twigg is coordinating interaction between secular relief groups working the Harris Fire and short-term, faith-based volunteers like the Davises and CRWRC. Twigg, 33, serves as project coordinator for Recover San Diego, an ecumenical coalition of faith-based groups in the county.

His passion for the job was forged in the wildfires that ravaged the county in October 2003. About two weeks after those fires, Twigg, who then worked at The Rock Church in San Diego, traveled to the badly burned mountain town of Ramona, Calif. Sitting at a meeting of church representatives that had gathered to coordinate area relief efforts, two facts struck Twigg: One, it was the first time these groups had ever come together. And two, they were only coming together after the fires. "I thought, 'As the Christian community, we can do better than this,'" he said.

Four months later, Twigg met with people from the Episcopal and United Methodist denominations who had reached similar conclusions, and Recover San Diego was born. The group aims to help individual households and faith-based organizations prepare for disaster and, when it strikes, respond in a coordinated, collaborative way.

Taking a lesson from the longevity of faith-based groups still working in regions ravaged in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina, government and civic groups are providing Recover San Diego with significant backing, Twigg said. Still, the internal dynamics of the faith-based effort aren't friction-free. Interactions between established disaster relief groups and FBOs newer to aid work can be "fraught with peril," Twigg said. "To enter the relief realm with new ideas takes a lot of time and relationship-building."

Friction also occurs among the faithful. Some FBOs have "clear differences on moral and social issues, yet you're attempting to set those aside for the greater good of the community," said Twigg. The key to forward progress, he added, is focusing on the common mission.

In the coming month, Recover San Diego will be reborn as the San Diego Disaster Coalition, MDS will turn its attention to building a house on the property of Bill and Judy Thompson, where they have already poured a foundation, and the Campbells will settle into their new home.

At a dedication ceremony on March 27, the Campbells' pastor blessed the new house and MDS presented the Campbells with a commemorative Bible.

Elsie doesn't mind that her new home is less than half the size of the old one. "I'm past the grieving, though at times I still think of something we lost, like Steve's paintings or the photo albums. But it's just stuff," she says with a smile. "We know God has a plan and a reason for all this. Maybe it was to meet all these people."

Lynn Vincent

Lynn is executive editor of WORLD Magazine and producer/host of the true crime podcast Lawless. She is the New York Times best-selling author or co-author of a dozen nonfiction books, including Same Kind of Different As Me and Indianapolis. Lynn lives in the mountains east of San Diego, Calif.


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