California fire victims find long path to recovery

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RAMONA, Calif., Oct 29 (Reuters) Sifting through the ash-covered rubble where her family's home stood one week ago, Nicole Booth combs the scorched remains of a life left behind in the wildfires that blanketed this Southern California town.

The blaze consumed the family home leaving only the concrete foundation to support the half-chewed appliances and melted metal frames. The trees and grass that once surrounded the home are now gone, replaced by barren brown fields.

There is the hydraulic truck that her husband, Robert, used in the family's water well business. It's charred and black like the special hospital bed for their daughter Alexis, who uses a ventilator to breathe because she is paralyzed from the neck down on her left side.

The Booth family -- mother, father and four kids -- fled the property on October 21 when flames stoked by gusting Santa Ana winds engulfed their home with only time to grab some clothes, photos, pets and Alexis' medical equipment.

''You're so grateful to get out alive that you almost feel guilty for feeling so upset about things,'' said Nicole Booth, who is five months pregnant.

Firefighters have wrested control over most of the wildfires that swept through Southern California over the last week, allowing most of the 640,000 evacuated residents of San Diego County to return home and begin the recovery process.

But for some evacuees devastated by the fires, rebuilding seems like an almost impossible task even with a helping hand from the government.

NO INSURANCE The Booth family returned to Ramona, a San Diego suburb, on Saturday and found their entire property incinerated including an adjacent home office where Robert and Nicole ran Booth's Pump&Crane Service for 16 years.

Compounding the trouble is that the property was uninsured. The family discontinued their policy after they could no longer afford insurance when prices soared in the wake of the 2003 Cedar fires that destroyed homes in Ramona.

The family also did not qualify for federal rebuilding aid since the property is not in their name even though they have paid the mortgage for years.

''Right now there is an outpour (of support), but what do you do in a month when you got no money, the outpour is gone and you're still trying to figure out how to replace a business and a house,'' said Nicole.

Robert, Nicole and the children have relocated to a one-story home in Ramona owned by an out-of-town relative. Family and friends shuttle in to offer help and take turns looking after the children.

Alexis, 15, lays on a slumped couch in an air-conditioned room.

Nicole regularly cleans her breathing equipment, because she doesn't have a filter for the device that keeps out the smoky black soot that floats in the air.

Blond-haired KiriAnn, 2, seems in good spirits. She erupts with laughter when her uncle lifts her by her feet and chases one of the rescued cats around the living room.

Oliver, 4, stalks around the house, looking to help the other men fix up the new place only to be thwarted at almost every turn.

Charlie, 13, gets emotional when he talks about losing the only home he has known, but Nicole is happy that he is at least willing to talk about it.

For Nicole, the most pressing need is to find a way to pay for Alexis' 1,100 dollars a month medical insurance in case any major health issues should arise.

The Booths intend to stay in Ramona near friends and relatives, a crucial safety net for the family. Friends have launched a Web site -- www.boothsfamilyfund.com -- to raise money for the family.

Nicole and Robert plan to apply for a small business loan from the federal government to try to buy a new pump truck.

''Today is OK, but you get scared when you think what you have to do,'' said Nicole. ''It's tomorrow that is scary.'' REUTERS SYU HS1257

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