A barbecue and music at the Ramona Outdoor Community Center Saturday marked the one-year anniversary of the Witch Fire for about 300 survivors who lost their homes and other possessions in the flames.
It was hosted by San Diego Fire Victims Lawyers, the group representing the largest collection of plaintiffs, now numbering more than 600 people, in a lawsuit filed against SDG&E and Sempra in April.
SDG&E has been found responsible for the Witch, Rice and Guejito wildfires by Cal Fire and the Public Utilities Commission.
Saturday’s event was bittersweet.
One lawyer, Mitchell Wagner, told the crowd: “Our reason for doing this is so you can get to know each other and share with each other. We can sympathize with you, but only you know what it was like. Our other goal here today is simply to have a day of fun in the sun.”
While children enjoyed pony rides and chasing each other around, it was hard for some survivors to talk about the events of October 2007 again.
“I don’t really like to think about it anymore,” said one woman. She lost her home and a dog in the fire and signed up for the lawsuit over the winter. She and her roommate have had to split up and rent rooms in different friends’ homes. “It was hard to come here today. It brings it all up again.”
Yet people appreciated the music by The Working Cowboy Band, and the smoked beef and chicken barbecue.
“These guys really care,” said Patty Smith about the lawyers group. She and her family lost their home on Ramona View Court in the fire and joined the legal action. “I’ve seen them cry when they’re listening to people’s stories.”
The attorneys were not unaffected by the wildfires themselves. Two had homes threatened by the Witch Fire. Neighbors saved one of the homes with a garden hose. The home of another was used as an evacuation point for three families, horses, dogs, cats and goats. This personal involvement became part of the impetus for them wanting to represent the victims, Michael Feinberg told the Sentinel after the barbecue.
As the attorneys gave a brief presentation, one of them, Feinberg, told people, “We think of this as our ‘We Will Remember’ gathering. I won’t forget the flames, the traffic, the fear, the trees and the pets. Our goal is recovering everything you lost. We are a large power as a group, with you.”
Attorney Tom Tosdal, the liaison among all lawyers for individual cases against the utility, said, “We have a very good judge and he’s not going to be intimidated by SDG&E and Sempra.
The utility’s goal is to drag the cases out as long as possible, he said, but his group of attorneys wants to keep the case moving forward. They hope to see liability determined and some resolution by 2010.
Superior Court Judge Richard Strauss is presiding over the cases. About 80 attorneys are representing about 40 lawsuits. There are insurance companies wanting to recover money they paid to customers, as well as government agencies looking for compensation, and individuals who lost homes, farms, ranches and businesses.
The legal actions are in the discovery phase now. San Diego Fire Victims Lawyers attorney Gerald Singleton is visiting people in that group’s case to go over the loss estimates. He said fire survivors need to be getting their damage accounting together.
His father, attorney Terry Singleton, is head of discovery for design and construction. He has successfully litigated previous fire-related cases. He told the Sentinel that plaintiffs in his group’s case have damage estimates of up to $15 million for agriculture and between $50,000 and $3 million for homes and businesses. He said people still have another year to consider whether to join the lawsuit, but he reiterated that it’s very important that they get their damage figures estimated now.
Singleton told the crowd that the lawyers had recently had a chat with a Ramona family which has had two generations impacted by local wildfires.
“And they have children,” Singleton said. “We hope they won’t be impacted again.”
That family — Robert and Nicole Booth and their five children —signed up with San Diego Fire Victims Lawyers’ lawsuit about a month ago. They lost their uninsured home in the Witch Fire and everything connected to their family well-pumping and service business. The Booths lived on 28 acres near Haverford and Pamo roads. The home had been built by Robert’s grandfather in the 1940s.
“I’m not comfortable suing people,” Nicole told the Sentinel. “But then we heard all these things that started coming out about SDG&E being negligent. There have been a lot of people giving to us during our recovery. We’d like to be able to give back. Also, we have felt guilty about wanting to replace some of our more expensive items that were lost, such as our scuba equipment. The settlement money would help replace that.”
The Booths recently moved into a new home.
About one third of Saturday’s barbecue participants were not plaintiffs but came to hear about the lawsuit. Among them were Dale and Wendy Adams. The Witch Fire took the home they were renting and they had to move with their own seven children and three foster children in their care.
They had renter’s insurance and they found another home quickly, but the new house was $900 a month more, they said. The insurance only covered the difference for two months.
“We were afraid of losing the foster kids because the licensing requirements about housing are very strict,” Wendy said. The children in their household range from age 8 to 18.
Due to the increased stress, coupled with her diabetes, Wendy lost her job at Camp Marston in Julian. The couple recently moved to another, less expensive, home.
At another table at Saturday’s event, Irene Neal, age 84, flashed smiles and fidgeted to the music.
“I just can’t help it,” she said. As the band played Johnny Cash and other favorites, Neal told the Sentinel, “I’m doing fine!”
In the months leading up to the Witch Fire, two members of Neal’s family died. Then the flames stole her mobile home.
“That’s life.” she said. “Life happens. I’m going to get on with my life. I have new furniture that my son found for me on Craig’s List (a Web site). Christ in Action and Samaritan’s Purse have been wonderful to me. Agencies have given me money.”
Neal has bought another mobile home and said she signed up for the lawsuit to recover the difference between the cost of this one and the insurance she was able to collect on her old one.
“I’d lived in my home for 39 years and I hadn’t updated the insurance,” she said.
On the night before the blaze swept through her mobile home park, Neal had been told by the park staff that she could go to bed and not worry because the flames were at a distance. However, she said, 30 minutes later they called to tell her to evacuate immediately.
“I got my bank statements and insurance papers, and I grabbed some spaghetti sauce from the fridge. I was able to save a quilt.” She drove to her daughter’s. Later, she rented a room from her granddaughter and husband.