California Fire Victims Apply for Aid, Begin to Rebuild

Nichole Booth's hands were stained with ash from picking through the blackened and twisted pieces left of her life after an inferno engulfed everything she owned.

She tried not to cry in front of her four children. But in the few moments she can steal away, the tears spill down her cheeks.

Like so many others, Booth took the first steps toward rebuilding her life Monday, a week after a firestorm destroyed her San Diego County home and business.

"I feel ashamed. I've never had to ask for help. I don't know what to say to people," Booth says, her voice dropping to a whisper.

The wildfires, which destroyed more than 2,000 homes, continued to burn Monday. With more than a dozen blazes fully surrounded, firefighters were trying to gain control of six others that were at least half contained. The flames have killed 14 people and blackened 809 square miles from the Mexican border to Los Angeles.

The Santa Ana winds are forecast to return later this week. They are expected to be much weaker than the fierce blasts that spread flames last week.

In the weeks ahead, the Booths and hundreds of other families who lost their homes will be at the mercy of the federal government for grants, loans and other assistance.

Some help can be offered quickly, but larger decisions about the future will take weeks, and be decided by federal workers shuffling mountains of loan applications in Ft. Worth, Texas, and suburban Maryland.

A week ago, the Booths ran for their lives — carrying only the essentials: a change of clothes for the children, and oxygen tanks, a wheelchair and medication for a daughter paralyzed by brain tumors who survives on life support. The fire swallowed their house before their eyes as they pulled out of the driveway.

The family lived in a modest home that was passed down to her husband, Robert Booth, from his father, and they never put their names on the deed, which could delay tens of thousands of dollars in aid.

In the meantime, the Booths will have to depend on charity. The Red Cross is the only agency still providing hotel assistance for fire victims.

"For them, I think the wrinkles can be worked out, but it's going to take many agencies, and probably going to take volunteer agencies to step in, too," said FEMA spokesman Michael Raphael.

Typically, only property owners are eligible for FEMA's maximum $28,200 payout for lost homes. But Raphael said the agency looks at each loss on a case-by-case basis and would take into consideration that the Booths say they pay a mortgage, even though they don't own the home.

FEMA has already received nearly 8,300 applications for aid and visited 641 homes to assess damage in the seven counties declared a major federal disaster area. As of Monday, the agency had paid out $600,000, and was on pace to settle about 75 claims a day.

Fire victims have said FEMA apparently learned lessons from the confusion that arose after Hurricane Katrina about where to turn for federal assistance.

The agency has sent scores of neatly dressed agency representatives to the San Diego area. Large signs and tents bearing the agency's name direct victims to one-stop centers where victims can redirect their mail, apply for building permits and register for FEMA disaster assistance.

But the scale of the disaster here is much smaller than in New Orleans, where hundreds of thousands of people were left homeless.

Hector Valazquez, 52, who lost his home in Delzura last Sunday said he's felt reassured by his first interactions with friendly FEMA workers, but the proof of how well the agency deals with the disaster has yet to be seen.

"They are going to show us that what happened in Katrina can be done better here," Valazquez said. "Until we have a home, there's no proof."

If FEMA denies their request, the Booths could apply for up to $40,000 in loans from the Small Business Administration to replace the contents of their home.

For the Southern California fires, the federal government has already offered a 2.937 percent interest rate, and homeowners can have up to 30 years to repay the loan.

It isn't just the Booths' house and all their belongings that were destroyed. Their business, Booth's Pump and Crane Service, also burned and so did all of the equipment.

To restart their business, the Booths will have to apply for hefty loans to purchase new equipment and cover their lost income.

One of the biggest challenges is showing proof when important paperwork went up in flames.

Robert Sanders, 56, a commercial photographer who lost his Rancho Bernardo house, complained Monday about a pile of documents he needed to fill out for assistance when the information requested went up in smoke.

"Under normal circumstances, I can understand it, but in this kind of situation where everything you have has been ripped from your soul, filling out these forms is the last thing you want to do," he said. "What you want to do is just climb on the back of a Harley and go ride and live out of pup tent for the rest of your life. It's a real sense of futility."

Sanders did get food stamps and $1,000 from the American Red Cross, but he got nothing from FEMA.

Business owners can apply for up to $1.5 million in loans from the Small Business Administration, which come with a 4 percent interest rate. The agency aims to approve loans within two weeks of receiving applications, said spokesman Phil Duncan.

For victims who had fire insurance, insurance agents can provide initial money for hotels and apartment rentals. Homeowner's insurance will usually cover a year — or even two — of expenses for temporary living quarters while customers rebuild.

But that's not a solution for the Booth family, who like so many others in the area, had their fire insurance canceled after devastating blazes in 2003. Their house wasn't damaged then, but they were unable to meet requirements issued by insurance companies to clear away brush and vegetation in mountain communities.

The Booths have filled out their FEMA paperwork. They've talked to the SBA. They have an appointment with the Red Cross.

And still, Nichole Booth says days later, she doesn't know what to do.

"They told me this was just the beginning process. What does that mean? What do we do in the meantime?" asked, her cheeks smudged from wiping tears with ash-stained hands. "I just wish somebody would tell me it's going to be all right."