Mick Pattinson, CEO of home builder Barratt American in Carlsbad, Calif., is a lucky man. Unlike 1,342 households that had their homes destroyed by the 18 fires that swept through seven Southern California counties the past several days, Pattinson returned to his home yesterday.
"I can smell the smoke inside, and there's dust and soot throughout, but the house is fine," he said, speaking on his cell phone in the early afternoon Pacific time Wednesday.
Pattinson, who was told by police at 11:30 a.m. Monday morning to evacuate his Rancho Santa Fe-area home, said he stayed with a friend in Carlsbad Monday night and spent the second night in a downtown condo project.
"We knew from the way the winds were blowing Sunday night that a fire was coming," said Pattinson, who hopes this time around the rebuilding effort will be more efficient than after the Cedar Fire of 2003 that destroyed 2,232 homes and took 15 lives.
Pattinson said Barratt American and the home building industry stand ready to rebuild the area. He said it pained him to see one report on a local TV news station about a family that lost their home in 2003 and was still living in a trailer. They then lost the trailer home in this most recent fire.
"The bureaucrats have to get out of the way, and the insurance companies have to release the money so we can get people back to their lives as quickly as possible," said Pattinson.
"We've got the know-how and as an industry we're ready to go, with the slump that the industry has been going through there are a lot of people available to go to work and rebuild," he said.
Most of the builder trade groups are getting involved. The California Building Industry Association (BIA) is starting a fund to help fire victims and the BIA of Orange County is working with local jurisdictions to get permits expedited and looking for ways to have unsold inventory made available for rentals for people who need a place to live.
While some were becoming focused on the rebuilding efforts, others were just trying to get through the ordeal.
Donna Morafcik, vice president of communications for the BIA of San Diego, said it's just too early to tell how much damage has been done to local projects.
"The whole county was shut down," she said. "Right now the focus is on saving property and lives and supporting the emergency personnel," she explained.
Morafcik said about five of the San Diego BIA's staff were evacuated, including Paul Tryon, the trade group's CEO. She said the office was closed until Wednesday morning, and only about half the staff returned to work.
"It's really the most intense level of stress I've ever experienced, it's a much higher level than everyday work stress," she said.
"When you just watch the fires and see it get closer and closer to your community, it's really something that's going to take some time to get over," she concluded.
Donna Rowley, vice president of human resources at Barratt American, said the experience is profound.
"Some people watched their home burn totally to the ground," she said. "I almost lost mine four years ago," she added. Her home in Scripps Ranch is still intact.
Rowley said roughly a dozen of Barratt American's 140 employees had yet to return to work.
President Bush declared the affected counties a federal disaster area early Tuesday morning, and seeking to show that his administration is now more responsive than during the Katrina disaster two years ago, went on a tour of Southern California this morning.
As of 9 a.m. Pacific time today, the state's Office of Emergency Services confirmed three fire-related fatalities, 45 injuries, and 460,000 acres burned. State officials said 10,693 firefighters from multiple California jurisdictions were fighting the fires, along with crews from Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico.
Contrary to reports that 1 million were evacuated, state officials said there were 321,000 mandatory evacuations. The officials said the thousands of others who evacuated did so on their own. Some 19,440 people were living in 54 shelters throughout the region.
People in need of assistance should call the FEMA hotline at 800-621-3362 or visit www.fema.gov/assistance .