By Raymond R. Beltrán
On the ash covered, two-way road leading through Harbison Canyon, the mountains now lie gray and white on both sides, and chimneys, along with delicate black twigs from burned down trees, are all that stand in place of what could have been considered a real scenic drive through the country. A few firemen walk up and down the road to consult with residents sifting through the rubble, searching for anything that will mean something in the midst of disaster. Smoke floats up into the air from piled up debris, and there is an omnipresent effluvium of what used to be people’s homes throughout the East County.
Turning left onto Mountain View Road, and then a left onto Sage Road, leads to a town called Crest, which is now encircled by skeletal homes, debris, ash, and anything metal that withstood the heat of the recent wave of fires.
Carmen Rico, a resident of Crest, was taking care of errands away from home around two o’clock on Sunday afternoon when she received a phone call from her sister and brother-in-law who asked her to go home, get her possessions, and get out of Crest. They were standing in her front yard staring east off in the distance and could see smoke creeping over the top of the mountain.
“We were as vigilant as possible trying to find out about the fire in Ramona,” Carmen says with a frustrated sigh. “But there was no information available to Crest. So I said, ‘Nothing’s going to happen. There’s no flames, no smoke, no news. So, it’s no big deal.”
Because of persistent pleas from her family members, Carmen decided to go home and retrieve her two dogs, two cats, and her son, Daniel John Rico. She arrived an hour later at three o’clock and began to watch the smoke from the fire that seemed too far off in the distance to affect her home, or the Crest area for that matter.
Being a resident of the East County for the past ten years of her life, Carmen had seen fires pass her by like the Alpine Divide Fire of 2000. She’s experienced the Santa Ana winds and other weather conditions that East County mountains are susceptible to. Even though she was optimistic about the chances of her home surviving, she picked up her pets and her son. She left her home soon after, and that would be the last time she would see her home and the Crest community standing. The fires metastasized crawling over the mountains and into her community. It reached her house, and black and white rubble is all that lies there now.
As Carmen circles around the remains trying to contact her insurance agency, she says the one aspect of the fire that upsets her the most is that there was no warning from city officials whatsoever. According to Carmen, while towns like Alpine and Scripps Ranch had a surge of television and radio media reporting on the extent of the fire from city councilmen and elected officials, Crest had a minority of the coverage time, and no attempt had been made by their councilman to contact residents.
“I’m still shocked. I only went back for my son because I didn’t think it was going to affect me,” Carmen says. “We’ve always had fires and Santa Ana winds. It’s nothing abnormal to Crest. If I knew the fire was going to affect me, I’d spent time getting [irretrievable memorabilia] that you can’t replace… I guess I’m naïve because I figured the fire was going to be stopped, but Crest was left out of the loop. And I hate to think that it’s because Scripps Ranch has a higher income bracket.”
Along with all of her personal valuables, Carmen has lost her proof of insurance to the flames, and was only able to make an insurance claim two days after her home was burned down. Frustrated with the lack of responsiveness from Farmers Insurance Agency, she says that if their had been some kind of information about Crest and the extent of the fire, she would have been more prepared than she is now, in a hiatal state of comfort. Leaving her family members to shuffle through the remains, Carmen goes to seek help at Santana High School’s disaster shelter.
According to Greg Smith, a volunteer for the American Red Cross Disaster Recovery Center at Santana High School in Santee, Carmen is not the only victim that has lost all she owns. Having dealt with approximately two-hundred victims receiving shelter through Red Cross, Greg has seen uninsured homeowners, renters, and those that have lost family members in the disaster.
“I think it’s extremely important to apply with the federal government,” says Greg about the victims. “[Victims] need to get in touch with their insurance agents, and the uninsured need to stay in close touch with family and friends and allow people to help them. People aren’t used to receiving help and are very modest, but allow people to be helpful.”
The American Red Cross has currently put up a shelter for victims at Santana High, but could soon be moving to a new location. They have a program involving organizations that gear toward counseling, spiritual healing, and mental health. Insurance businesses such as Farmers, All State, and State Farm have set up agency booths for victims with insurance, and there are trailers that have been providing internet and telephone access as well.
For those without insurance, Greg, along with the rest of the Red Cross volunteers, have stressed the importance of applying for FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) and the Small Businesses Administration which “can make federally subsidized loans to repair or replace homes, personal property or businesses that sustained damages not covered by insurance.”
Pamphlets are provided at the Disaster Recovery Center to inform victims to have prepared information like the address of the damaged property, a current mailing address, description of losses, a social security number, and an estimated gross income at the time of the loss. Registration is easily done over telephones that are provided by these shelters.
“It’s got to be the worse to experience the loss of your home, let alone a family member,” says Greg. “Our soul purpose is helping people get through these first difficult days of the disaster. It’ll be a long time before they get a sense of normalcy back.”
SBA (Small Business Administration) is currently offering information services for homeowners, renters and business owners of all sizes on how to attain low interest loans to victims in all types of financial situations. They are providing information on how to get temporary housing, food, clothing, and personal necessities. According to SBA Public Information Officer Ken Shuman of the Sacramento Area 4 Disaster Office, an SBA disaster center is open to the victims at 11454 Blue Cypress Drive in Scripps Ranch.
“The people do not have to bring anything with them,” says Shuman. “Simply just show up. That’s the beauty of one phone call. People can register for these programs and speak with other businesses involved.”
As neighbors in Crest congregate and shuffle through the soot, Daniel John and his friends steadily dig through car parts that aren’t of use to what used to be two cars. Her sister and brother-in-law sweep away at ashes where Daniel’s room used to be, looking for the graduation ring that the whole family had contributed to buy last year, and the ground is still a bit warm. Carmen speaks into her cell phone periodically and then is consoled by other Crest victims that are passing by.
Because the fire came and took her home and left in a matter of hours, Carmen hasn’t thought of any long-term goals for the future. She is insured and after contacting her agency, will start planning to rebuild on the same plot as before.
“No, I’m not afraid,” Carmen says when asked about the fear of rebuilding in Crest. “I know the potential of disaster because of the shift like this that happened. At least I know how to plan next time. I’m going to invest in a c.b. radio,” she laughs. “I know now not to trust the system to alert you ... A person just has to depend on their own senses.”