Economy stymies fire victims
Bonnie Fry may not be running the Ramona Fire Recovery Center anymore, but she still maintains a close presence to the many people she assisted after the 2007 wildfires.
Although the fire recovery center closed in December 2009, for many of those who lost their homes, life is not yet back to normal.
Fry said the majority of Ramonans who lost their homes have still not rebuilt. Of the approximately 486 homes that were destroyed in Ramona, Fry estimates that 50 to 70 have been rebuilt.
After facilitating the complicated and long process of recovery and rebuilding for many of the fire victims, Fry now often receives updates from those she helped. She is in contact with about 25 families and knows of two homes that were completed in February and another home that will be finished in about a month.
Losing everything can be an emotional toll for some people. Fry said she volunteers her time to lead a support group for women who are still dealing with their losses from the Witch fire.
“No one knows how difficult it is…unless you’ve been there,” said Fry, who was paid by The San Diego Foundation to head the fire recovery center on a full-time basis until it closed. Now she is involved on a volunteer basis.
Fry saw and continues to see difficult situations for some of the residents who came to the center. There were those who had to construct smaller homes when they rebuilt because the house they lost was under-valued. Those who had a business at their home lost that in addition to their home.
Small business owners in Ramona lost income during the evacuation and many people could not get Small Business Administration loans after the 2007 wildfires, Fry said.
And with some people struggling during these economic times, Fry said she knows of about seven families whose rebuilt homes have been threatened by foreclosures. Fry said she hears that financial institutions have not come up with workable ways for these families to keep their homes. Some homeowners have had to pay lawyers to help them out, but still may lose their homes, Fry said.
“It is my belief that there will be more than 35 to 40 percent of people that will not rebuild their homes from this fire,” she said. “The economic climate on the heels of this disaster has ruined chances for people to rebuild.”
On a more positive note, Fry said that some of the fire victims who sued San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) have already received payments from the utility. There are others who are still in litigation with SDG&E, but Fry said she is surprised that the cases are not taking years to resolve.
“So there may be a small surge of rebuilding now that people are receiving these financial awards from the utilities company,” she said.
Seeing victims of the Witch fire disillusioned and traumatized, Fry said she was also able to see how the information she gave them was helpful and how rewarding it was to see them get back on their feet. Fry was amazed at their strength and resiliency.
She was also touched by those who volunteered to help out fire victims.
“You see the best of people, too, and how they answer to a disaster,” Fry said.
Her work, she noted, could be draining and frustrating when dealing with different agencies.
“It is really, really tough to see the difficulties people have to work with,” said Fry.
During the aftermath of the Cedar fire in 2003, Fry volunteered to help those who suffered losses. The San Diego Foundation saw what Fry and others did and funded the Ramona Fire Recovery Center after the Witch fire.
The San Diego Foundation is financially supported through an array of sources, including the Chargers, the Padres, Indian gaming casinos, and various organizations and individuals. The foundation and Fry were instrumental in working with the Mennonite Disaster Services (MDS), which sent volunteers to rebuild homes. In February, MDS completed a new home for Ray and Josie Hampe.
Fry said there are still two homes that the Community Recovery Team will build. One that has been financed by a coalition of agencies will be built by the MDS RV (recreational vehicle) program of volunteer labor. The program is so named because the builders come in their own RVs and stay near the property while constructing the house. For the other home, financing is still being arranged.
Fry compiled a list of accomplishments for the Ramona Fire Recovery Center from October 2007 through December 2009. The center distributed gift cards totaling $66,000; food boxes totaling $10,000; landscaping trees totaling $2,000; and San Diego Foundation Essential Needs grants for 23 families totaling $80,000.
“You try and raise money and try to find out what fire families really need,” she said.
The recovery center also facilitated 234 families who received Sempra Energy grants totaling $879,000, and participated with 23 families with cases for the Unmet Needs Committee. Those families received aid of just over $905,000. Fry said the center also organized 3,411 volunteer hours for debris clearing, brush removal and shed building for 113 homes.
In addition, the center organized and facilitated over 300 meetings and workshops for insurance, rebuilding matters and issues dealing with the county. A swap/shop donation site was sponsored by the center for six months.
Twice a month, Fry published a newsletter with news and information regarding insurance, lawyers, rebuilding, stress management workshops, landscaping workshops, discounts and other useful information for those affected by the wildfires. For 1-1/2 years, Fry had two part-time assistants working with her.
The former substitute teacher said she is looking for a new job, preferably an advocacy-type of position. At the fire recovery center, Fry said she not only gained experience in advocacy work but also in managing volunteers and office administration.
“It was probably the most rewarding work I could have ever done,” she said.
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