JEFFREY KAYE: Charred, desolate and other-worldly. That's what hundred of thousands of acres of southern California look like after ten days of ferocious firestorms. The blazes not only blackened the land, they turned suburban and rural neighborhoods into smoldering ruins. One of the worst hit places was the well-off San Diego neighborhood of Scripps Ranch. In a matter of hours last weekend, wind-driven fires reduced 385 homes to rubble. Residents were awed by the fire's ferocity.
RESIDENT: It went through so fast and driven so hard by the wind that you just find melted pools of glass and then metal that didn't burn, but everything else was incinerated.
JEFFREY KAYE: Like this.
JEFFREY KAYE: Now fire victims, many helped by friends and family, are picking through the ruins trying to salvage bits and pieces of their past.
JIM CAMPBELL: We are looking for my grandmother's wedding ring. My mom was unable to get it when she took off, but we'll find it in here. The metal's probably vaporized, but we'll find the diamonds.
JEFFREY KAYE: That's the one thing you're looking for?
JIM CAMPBELL: No. We're looking for anything else we can find, but that's the item I'm keeping my eyes peeled for. Anything else is a bonus.
JEFFREY KAYE: Although they've lost their homes, many residents, such as Kendra Lipka, haven't lost their spirit and sense of humor.
KENDRA LIPKA: You know you think that you're going to get everything from insurance, but you never know. So we'll be doing whatever we can to try to build the house again.
JEFFREY KAYE: Life goes on.
KENDRA LIPKA: I was going to try to get rid of a few things around here. I just wanted to pick and choose what I took. I would have liked to.
JEFFREY KAYE: You didn't want to get rid of it this way.
KENDRA LIPKA: Not in one fell swoop. ( Laughs )
JEFFREY KAYE: Steve Tye has a platoon of friends helping with his cleanup work. He says he loves the small-town feeling of Scripps Ranch, and won't be run out by a fire. What did this neighborhood mean to you?
STEVE TYE: I love this place. We're going to clean this up and rebuild. I mean it's just a great community. I hope you come back in like six months, or, you know, two or three months and check up because I like that story. I want to see that building story.
JEFFREY KAYE: Those words were echoed by San Diego City Councilman Brian Maienschein, whose district includes Scripps Ranch. Do you think that people will rebuild back in the same place, the same kinds of homes?
BRIAN MAIENSCHEIN: They are so determined. It's been incredible. They all want to rebuild, same place, same homes. They love their neighborhood, they love their neighbors, they love the schools, and they want to stay here.
SPOKESPERSON: Go right in here, they'll sign you in and get your name and number and they can direct you to all the other agencies that are here.
JEFFREY KAYE: The city of San Diego has turned the local recreation center into a one-stop station for disaster relief services. Insurance companies have also set up shop here, promising policy holders prompt action.
SPOKESMAN: Is your house totaled?
WOMAN: Totaled, yeah.
SPOKESMAN: Okay, well, then you're on the highest of priorities.
JEFFREY KAYE: Lisa and Keith Yates say they are seeking normalcy.
LISA YATES: It's been a whirlwind for us. I feel that we've just been on go-mode of "okay, we got to find a place to live, we need to get the insurance straightened out, we need to call the mortgage company."
JEFFREY KAYE: The Yates say they're grateful for the assistance their insurer has provided.
LISA YATES: We were able to go into the office as soon as there was confirmation that the house was destroyed, and we picked up a check for $5,000, and we can get some clothes and that sort of thing.
JEFFREY KAYE: The Yates have already found a contractor to rebuild their house, but officials are telling fire victims to be cautious. California's insurance commissioner, John Garamendi, who visited the relief center yesterday, says con artists often prey on disaster victims.
JOHN GARAMENDI: As soon as the ashes cool, they move in. Contractors, or people who purport to be contractors, unlicensed, perhaps never lifted a hammer in their life, come in and say, "give me a thousand dollars, I'll scope this out, I'll do all the plans and I'll get underway." A thousand dollars is handed over, and they're gone.
JEFFREY KAYE: But while officials offer warnings, there are questions in the air about the speed and effectiveness of fighting the fires and preventing them. Some victims of the blaze in Scripps Ranch say a faster response could have saved their homes.
LISA YATES: I don't want to be angry, I mean ... with the firefighters. God bless all of them. I know they did what they could, but I think there is a lot of assistance that could have been done to save our community.
RICHARD CARSON: If you look at this it, will be roughly five years before all of this is rebuilt.
JEFFREY KAYE: Richard Carson agrees. He is a disaster expert and chair of the economics department at the University of California at San Diego.
RICHARD CARSON: While the actual fire couldn't have been prevented, it could have been stopped before it did this massive amount of damage, but there was a very small window to do that.
JEFFREY KAYE: Carson lives in Scripps Ranch. His own home survived the fire. He says more of his neighbors' houses could have been saved had authorities quickly deployed water-dropping helicopters and air tankers. State and local aircraft were already fighting other fires.
RICHARD CARSON: The problem was the Santa Ana winds were impacting all of Southern California. And once you had enough fires going elsewhere, the only resources that you could throw at it belong the federal government.
JEFFREY KAYE: Carson says military aircraft in San Diego and Colorado should have been mobilized immediately, but they weren't. Some officials, such as San Diego Congressman Duncan Hunter, blame a cumbersome approval process. A San Diego County supervisor says the state moved too slowly to seek federal assistance. For his part, Councilman Maienschein says authorities need to get a better handle on coordination problems once the immediate crisis has passed.
BRIAN MAIENSCHEIN: I think that's something that will be hashed out in the weeks and months ahead. Certainly there needs to be seamless cooperation, whenever you have an emergency situation. If it turns out that there wasn't for whatever reason, that needs to change. Right now, my focus is on being here for these people.
JEFFREY KAYE: There's also the question of where people build. Most of the more than 3,000 structures destroyed were either in wilderness areas or at the fringes of urban sprawl. Carson says huge conflagrations are inevitable.
RICHARD CARSON: This, in some sense, was highly predictable because the natural ecosystem wants to burn every ten, 15, 20 years. When you don't burn the area in its sort of natural cycle, you build up this huge amount of fuel.
JEFFREY KAYE: Carson says the desire to save buildings leads to fire-fighting policies that place a premium on stamping out small fires quickly and not allowing them to spread. As a result, brush grows in adjacent areas, and provides fuel for much larger fires when they come. The seemingly endless debate over how much development to allow in wilderness or fire-prone areas is likely to pick up once the flames are put out. But Councilman Brian Maienschein sees no reason why Scripps Ranch residents shouldn't rebuild.
BRIAN MAIENSCHEIN: You are always going to have vulnerability from natural disasters. You know if Mother Nature gets mad enough, she is going to win. And that is inevitable. But I don't think you say that just because there's some danger, you make everybody move out. I mean, I don't think that's the answer either.
JEFFREY KAYE: While political and policy questions about preventing, fighting and paying for future firestorms in California are starting to emerge, right now the emphasis is putting out the still-raging flames and coping with the destruction of the past week.