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Action Stirs In Face Of Wildfire Losses

The Business Press, 11/5/07

By Darla Martin Tucker
The Business Press
November 5, 2007

Brian Merrel, a machinist at Metric Machine in Ontario, got an anxious call at work Oct. 22 from his wife, Amanda.

"You'd better get home now. It's right behind us."

The Slide wildfire was burning through the San Bernardino National Forest toward their Running Springs home on Hunsaker Drive. The couple and their four children, ages 1-7, packed up and headed to Merrel's brother's house in Devore.

A short-term living expenses check from Allstate Insurance Co. enabled Merrel and his family to move into a hotel Oct. 25. As of Oct. 31, Merrel had missed four days of work to deal with fire-related issues, but his employer understands his situation, he said. "They've been really good," Merrel said.

Frustrations assailed Merrel. Banks would not cash his Allstate assistance check until Saturday, Oct. 28, because the check was not verified, he said.

Merrel expected to check his Running Springs home on Nov. 1. He heard the house was still standing, but feared it was uninhabitable. "Are we going to go home or not? ... The insurance company says it's up to the adjuster and the adjuster is not available until next week," Merrel said Oct. 31.

The so-called Slide fire was one of at least 23 infernos that charred 518,323 acres and 2,086 residences in the counties of San Bernardino, Riverside, Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego, Ventura and Santa Barbara. The fires killed seven people, according to California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The Slide fire burned 12,759 acres in the San Bernardino National Forest at Green Valley Lake near Running Springs. The blaze destroyed 272 homes and damaged 43 others. Eight firefighters were injured. Officials estimated the cost of battling the Slide fire at $18.8 million.

Fires in San Bernardino County destroyed 439 structures, the San Bernardino County Assessor's office reported on Oct. 31. The office posted a list on its Web site that day of damaged and destroyed properties. Estimated costs to reuild damaged or destroyed structures totaled $155.7 million. Estimated assessed value reductions totaled $78.9 million.

Two fires in Riverside County near Temecula destroyed 681 acres and one home.

The disaster prompted donations of money and products from corporations and nonprofit organizations.

Sempra Energy created a $5 million relief fund to help victims in areas serviced by Southern California Gas Co. and San Diego Gas & Electric.

The San Manuel Band of Mission Indians gave $1 million to various nonprofits serving fire victims, including the American Red Cross-Inland Empire Chapter and the Community Foundation serving Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

The California Speedway in Fontana, the International Speedway Corp. and the France family pledged $250,000 in services and aid. On Oct. 25, the Speedway and its food and beverage provider, Americrown Service Corp., delivered 22 pallets of bottled water, Gatorade and other beverages to the San Bernardino County Fire Department. On Oct. 27 the Speedway brought in a NASCAR show car, giant race car slide and inflatable obstacle course for youngsters. The Speedway

held a movie night that evening with free popcorn. It donated board games, coloring books and DVDs to evacuees.

AllState Insurance drove satellite-linked recreational vehicle service units to the National Orange Show evacuation center in San Bernardino on Oct. 24 so property owners could begin the claims process. The company called in about 200 Allstate claims adjusters from around California and other states to handle fire claims.

Allstate Insurance spokeswoman Patti Kelly was uncertain Nov. 1 how many assistance checks the company had written. "I haven't seen those numbers yet," she said. The insurance company pays up to two years of increased living expenses resulting from the fire, including restaurants, hotels and other costs. Checks may range from $1,200 to $5,000.

The company formed an arrangement with Bank of America allowing fire victims with identification to cash assistance checks up to $5,000 at the bank's branches.

Allstate spokesman Peter DeMarco was unaware of evacuee Merrel's check cashing difficulties. "It's the first I've heard of it. ... Sometimes a vendor is outside our control. We want to know so we can help that customer right away," DeMarco said.

The American Red Cross established a relief center for fire victims and their pets at the National Orange Show grounds.

Insurance companies, government agencies and others manned booths and assistance centers at the fair grounds. They provided counseling, pet care, insurance information, housing assistance, food stamps, document retrieval services, federal emergency funding and other assistance.

San Bernardino County Animal Care and Control operated a large tent and vehicle at the grounds for hundreds of dogs, cats, rabbits, pet snakes, guinea pigs and other pets.

Verizon Wireless provided Internet service including access to the American Red Cross Safe and Well Web site, where evacuees can post notices alerting far-flung family members of their status. As of Oct. 31, the site had received more than 30,000 hits, McLarney said.

Frank Guevara, system development team leader for San Bernardino County Information Services, offered residents a computerized look at their property to determine the level of damage. Using geographic information systems mapping from Google Earth, Guevara input individual addresses to show residents three-dimensional maps of burn areas, including individual parcels and the level of damage incurred at each property site.

"We try to make it a central clearing house of information and support," McLarney said.

Wal-Mart distributed 30 truck loads, or $450,000 worth of water, cots, food, personal hygiene products, towels and other items throughout Southern California. The company contributed $1 million to the American Red Cross for fire victim assistance. Disney sent costumed characters and plush toys to the Orange Show.

The American Red Cross assessed evacuees' needs and gave out bank cards worth roughly $500 to $1,000 each to fire victims to buy clothes, medicines, eye glasses and other badly needed items. "It's done on a case-by-case basis depending on need," McLarney said.

Fierce Santa Ana winds kicked various wild fires into blazing storms by the third weekend of October. In San Bernardino, 800 to 3,000 people slept at the National Orange Show center each night that week, McLarney said. Others with shelter used the center's services during the day, she said.

The Red Cross served 51,943 meals at the Orange Show and 12 other shelters in the region. The organization purchased the food from its contractor U.S. Foodservice. As firefighters gained control of the blazes the last week of October, the number of evacuees at the center dwindled rapidly. About 60 spent the night on Oct. 30 at the Orange Show facilities, McLarney said.

For Halloween the Red Cross, San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors and others pitched a festival at the Orange Show center. Wal-Mart provided children's costumes, pumpkins, candy and craft supplies.

Joshua Merrel, age 4, donned a Superman costume. He decorated a small pumpkin in bright paint and small black-and- white styrofoam pieces.

"We've given out 350 costumes," McLarney said.

About 20 American Red Cross emergency response vehicles carried water, shovels, cleanup supplies and other products to aid returning residents and fire fighters in the San Bernardino mountains, McLarney said Nov. 1. The Red Cross teams included volunteer mental health workers offering counseling to fire victims.

The crisis attracted more than 5,000 American Red Cross volunteers from across the country. McLarney is a business consultant in New Hampshire who volunteered to help California wild fire victims.

The Riverside County chapter of the American Red Cross operated five evacuation shelters in the Temecula-Murrieta area. About 800 people stayed at the shelters at various times, arriving mainly from San Diego County.

Medical personnel, including volunteer nurses, were stationed at each shelter. The Red Cross raised donations and pledges to cover the estimated $12 million to $15 million cost of the wildfires, said Lois Beckman, director of development for the Riverside County chapter. All five evacuation centers were closed by Nov. 1.

Nurses from St. Bernardine Medical Center in San Bernardino, Hemet Valley Medical Center, St. Mary Medical Center in Apple Valley and elsewhere worked in evacuee relief shelters, providing band aids, taking blood pressure, checking sick children and making referrals.

The Registered Nurse Response Network of the California Nurses Association in Oakland deployed nine nurses to shelters in San Diego County. Christina Talley and Deborah Morgan, emergency room nurses at Hemet Valley Medical Center, volunteered for three days. The nurses were not scheduled to work in the emergency room those days.

"If not, we would have re-arranged their schedules," Linda Dekiewiet, emergency room clinical nurse manager said.

Between eight and 10 nurses and emergency medical technicians signed up to volunteer with the fires, but "the crisis is pretty much passing," Dekiewiet said.

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