Saturday, Oct. 25, 2008 | Moments before they set foot on the rubble of their home for the first time. Days before the smoke would fully clear from the sky. And almost exactly a year before they would close on a new house in the Bernardo Trails, I stood inches from Rae Woods, her husband Doug and the rest of their family with a wide-angle lens stuffed in their faces as inconspicuously as a wide-angle lens can be when stuffed in someone’s face.
It was Oct. 23, 2007. The family had just arrived at their brand new Rancho Bernardo home to find collapsed walls, a pool full of soot and a massive pile of twisted beams and crumbled drywall.
Their’s was one of more than 1,600 homes in San Diego to burn down during last year’s massive wildfires. They were the family who had my lens, as well as that of an Associated Press photographer and a television crew, watching their every move, attempting to document the raw human emotion that comes with such loss.
One year later, the family graciously agreed to sit down for a follow-up interview. I talked to them about the past year: what it’s been like dealing with insurance companies, what they remember from that fateful day and how they will handle moving into a community that bore the brunt of last year’s wildfires.
To get started, what I’d really like to do is if you guys could just talk to me a little bit about the day you found out that your home had burned down.
Doug: We had evacuated the area and moved back into this existing house and then had to evacuate out of this house cause the fire was advancing. So we got into our motor home and headed to the coast.
Rae: We we’re just parked in our motor home. The kids were getting phone calls from people seeing it on the TV. Long before we saw it on the television, the kids were getting phone calls.
When you say see it, you mean the house?
Rae: Well the house was on the news as it was going down.
So who first told you the house was going down?
Rae: Jenny, our daughter. She was with us and her friends were calling.
Doug: And they were calling and said “I think your house is gone.”
Rae: And then it was a couple hours later before the house actually showed up on the ticker.
What went through your heads when you saw that?
Rae: It was just a sad day.
I think, I expected it. When we left the flames were coming down over the hill on both sides of the mountains behind us. The winds had been raging the entire day. We weren’t surprised. Shocked, but we weren’t surprised.
When you got there, one of the things I was amazed by as I was photographing, was the things that you were finding in the house that you just hadn’t expected to find. Can you tell me about some of the things that you hadn’t expected to find that you came up with that day?
I don’t think you expect to find anything when you look at it. You know, when you walk into a site like that. I think for us there were things there, because the firemen had been on the site the moment the fire started, they had put so much water into the living room area and so much water into the house.
Specifically, items that we were surprised by? The glass ornament that was found in the middle of the ashes that still had fish line attached to it, things like that were just bizarre.
People get really revved up about fire protection in San Diego and about what our governments are or aren’t doing to protect us. As someone who’s been through the experience of losing their home, how do you feel the government is doing to protect San Diegans?
Rae: I’m not going to make a judgment call about whether they should do more or should do less. I honestly believe some of these things happen and the government cannot be expected to protect against earthquakes and floods and fires.
Doug: 100 mph-plus winds driving that fire — there’s no protection, it just happens.
Rae: And this is my third forest fire and I remember when I was a senior in high school and a fire started in Ramona and it ended up in Poway and the firefighters made it very clear to us that their job was to stop the fire. They couldn’t stop and protect individual homes. And I personally I respect that. I don’t expect the government to take care of us entirely. So we’re not at war with the fire department.
Doug: Or the city for lack of response. We had firebreaks around the house. The fire came through the neighbor’s house and through the side yard. It never touched our firebreaks.
Rae: And we know there are people in High Valley or other areas who the firemen did not make an attempt to even be there.
Doug: They couldn’t get in; they didn’t have any water pressure. It was a combination of things.
Rae: It’s really not an issue we’ve been involved in.
I know that dealing with your insurance company has not been the greatest experience for you guys.
Rae: We will not hesitate to say that we think overall the insurance companies are just not eager to cover your losses and they make it very difficult. And I think they’re unethical and immoral about how they do it.
Can you tell me about your experience and what’s driven you to reach that conclusion.
Doug: We were promised in writing that the insurance company would come out and properly appraise the value of replacement cost of our house. You know, we had just moved in, we just had got an insurance policy. We got a letter saying they would come out, send an adjuster and give us the replacement value of our home. But in the interim, we’ll give you this insurance policy that will cover you.
OK, we’re not experienced with total losses, it sounded appropriate. When the dust settled, we were underinsured. And the only way they would settle up with us is if we rebuilt the house at 100 percent or we bought a new house. But buying the new house, they resisted until last may when the State of California Department of Insurance required insurance compensators within the state of California to give that option to their insured. So from October to May we were repeatedly told that the only way your’re going to get the insurance out of your home is to rebuild it 100 percent, on that lot, no place else.
And then, the value of that insurance policy covers your living expense, your contents and everything just multiplies right down the line.
Rae: They tell you no, or they tell you something and then you have to respectfully rephrase the question, disagree, write again — 30 day interim, you get another no. You request it differently, respectfully, nicely, you get another “no.” You’re three, four, five months down the road and finally you get a yes. That’s on one issue. And there are how many issues involved in this process?
So, how long did it take you before you were finally comfortable with the amount of yeses you had that you were ready to move forward with a new home?
Doug: I’d say about 11 months.
Rae: I was just going to say 10 to 11 months. And even then we were still forced into buying or rebuilding. There was no way of a settlement. We still will have to build or buy a house.
What would your plan have been otherwise?
Rae: Our plan probably would have been to downsize and take our equity of our home and do something else with it. But that wasn’t an option with the insurance company. It was either build a house of that size and then if we chose to downsize and sell it. But we still had to take two years of our lives to do that.
Tell me about the challenges of buying a house in a new economy.
Doug: If we do not buy a house that is equal value to the house we lost, the insurance company will not pay us the difference. So, you can’t get your money out. You have to buy a big house. We didn’t want to buy a big house. Our whole intent was to live there for three or four years and then get the kids through college and downsize and move. Well now we’re back a year later, having not lived in the house we would have enjoyed living in. Now the house we’re buying, we have to remodel it, so it will take another seven or eight months. So it’s going to be another seven or eight months to move in. It will be almost two years to get back to having a house that we can call our house.
What you don’t see on the downside is you can’t buy furniture for a house that you don’t have. You’re paralyzed. You’re just frozen.
When this first happened did you expect that it was going to be as challenging as it has been?
Rae: Absolutely not.
Doug: Not at all.
Rae: We didn’t expect it to be so unreasonable. The fire loss is one thing and you know how hard it’s going to be to replace your possessions, the things you cannot replace — you know the family videos of when your kids were 5 years old. That was all something that happened and you deal with it. But the stuff that the insurance company put you though that was just totally not necessary in our minds and our hearts — no, we never anticipated to be treated the way we were treated. And we felt they did that to a lot of people. And it wasn’t about the money per se, just so much of it was not necessary and it was painful and hurtful what they did, not just to us, but what we know they’ve put a lot of people through just for them to save money. And we didn’t expect that. That’s not the way we do business.
What was it like having people like me and the Associated Press and all these TV stations all of a sudden sticking cameras in your faces?
Rae: I think for me it wasn’t that big of an issue, because it was only that one day and you do have to respect that it is news. I’m going to share something that has been a thorn in my side and has remained one of the few thorns of my side. The photos that were taken of our home that were in the newspapers and that are on The San Diego Union-Tribune’s website — the photographer was in our home, inside the house, taking pictures of the firemen from inside the home. That is the only offensive thing. … Having the newspaperman in our home at the time the fire was raging was just inappropriate and it was invasive.
Doug: Yeah, he’s walking through your house taking photos of it while the smoke’s waffling through. What’s he doing walking through your house, taking photographs?
Rae: So that’s our only issue with the news media.
Are you concerned at all about moving in to the Trails, which was hit possibly worse than any other community in San Diego (by last year’s fires)?
Rae: I think going back to where the original house was, that would always kind of be in my mind. I think I would see it when I looked out those back windows. I think I would feel it when those Santa Anas come up. I realize intellectually that in the Trails is probably the same but because I haven’t lived there through it, I don’t think it will be a daily fear factor.
Doug: I didn’t even realize the one across the street from the one we’re buying burned down.
Rae: Because the neighborhood as a whole is still so green and vibrant that, we know it’s there, but like people who rebuild in flood zones or earthquake areas, this is home.