Once the embers die, fire victims have a whole new series of challenges to overcome as they move to rebuild their lives and homes.
If they lost their homes, they must find a place to stay after leaving an emergency shelter or the home of a friend or family member.
Then there are the questions of whether to rebuild and where to relocate longer term if homes have been severely damaged or destroyed.
Victims may also have to fill out property-tax and income-tax forms and apply for federal disaster relief.
“We're prepared for losses of historic proportions for our company,” said Farmers Insurance CEO Paul Hopkins.
To cover living expenses, victims with homeowner insurance policies can apply for assistance under their “loss of use” provisions. Farmers and State Farm set up mobile processing vans at Qualcomm Stadium to handle claims for evacuees and owners whose homes were destroyed.
Changwen Liu and his wife, Ling Guo, both high-tech engineers, received a $500 check from Farmers to cover short-term expenses for themselves and two school-age children after evacuating last Monday from their home in Rancho Bernardo. They had moved from Portland, Ore., just three months ago.
“We were not familiar with evacuation procedures,” Liu said, when his neighbors told him it was time to go.
Hal Wilson, a Farmer's agent, arranged to cut a $5,000 check for a client who lost a home near the Wild Animal Park and will need to pay for interim housing while deciding about rebuilding.
Insurance policies typically provide for coverage for extraordinary expenses incurred in a disaster, such as renting interim housing. The total allowed can range from about 25 percent to 40 percent of the value of a policy, said Tom Olivo, Farmer's catastrophe manager, and does not impact the amount paid for rebuilding costs.
State Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner said he is dispatching a dozen investigators here at the request of Sheriff Bill Kolender to deal with allegations of insurance fraud.
He also reminded public insurance adjusters that a law, passed in the wake of the 2003 wildfires, prohibits them from soliciting homeowners for business for seven days after a disaster.
“The purpose of the law is to permit victims, such as victims of this week's fires, to have some time to comprehend their losses before contracts relating to their losses are solicited,” Poizner said in a statement.
Other insurance questions may be answered on the insurance department hotline, (800) 927-4357.
For homeowners with mortgage questions, Dustin Hobbs, a spokesman for the California Mortgage Bankers Association, urged them to contact their lenders to discuss applying for “loan forbearance” if they want to postpone payments.
“Lenders will suspend payments and make it an easier time during your situation,” he said.
The payments are not cancelled, but simply delayed by extending the mortgage term, he explained.
Officials with Wells Fargo and Countrywide Home Loans encouraged mortgage-holders to call and work out payment plans if they've been affected by the fires.
Countrywide “has implemented its emergency response and crisis management plans and is eager to do everything possible to help those affected by the fires that continue to burn throughout seven Southern California counties,” the company said in a statement.
“Based on the impact, Countrywide will create forbearance programs, where appropriate, for homeowners to help them to recover during this difficult time,” the company said.
Wells Fargo is offering similar assistance, but stressed that homeowners need to call first before stopping their mortgage payments.
For fire victims overwhelmed by all the challenges ahead, not the least of which is the long and tedious process of rebuilding, a number of assisstance centers have been set up throughout the country.
Rancho Bernardo-Glassman Recreation Center, 18448 W. Bernardo Drive, San Diego.
Ramona Community School, 1710 Montecito Road, Ramona.
Fallbrook Community Center, 341 Heald Lane, Fallbrook.
Rancho San Diego-Cuyamaca College, 900 Rancho San Diego Parkway, El Cajon.
At these centers, residents and business owners can meet with officials from the various local jurisdictions, insurance companies and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to get questions answered on filing claims for help and processing plans for rebuilding.
“During the Cedar fire, we set up a one-stop shop in Scripps Ranch, and representatives from FEMA said it was the most successful rebuilding effort they had seen,” said City Councilman Brian Maienschein, whose district includes Rancho Bernardo, where some 300 homes have been damaged or destroyed. “My intent is to duplicate that. People are traumatized, and instead of having to go to 50 places they can go to one place with 50 people there.”
Part of the plan, he said, is to have specific development services employees working exclusively with fire victims so that building permits can be processed more quickly.
Darren Gretler, chief of the building division of the county's Department of Planning and Land Use, said county services will include expedited permit processing, temporary occupancy permits to locate trailers on homesites and health department advice on handling septic tanks.
County Supervisor Dianne Jacob said building permit fees will be waived for fire victims.
“We learned a lot from the Cedar Fire (of 2003),” she said. “We were far better prepared.”
Roger M. Showley: (619) 293-1286; email@example.com