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Last Updated: Saturday, 27 October 2007, 03:20 GMT 04:20 UK
Picking up the pieces in California
By David Willis
BBC News, California

Susan Grahan
Susan Grahan says she is just grateful to have made it out alive
When we met, in the upscale suburb of Rancho Bernardo, Susan Grahan was sifting through a pile of charred belongings with a shovel.

Her home on Aguamiel Street had been reduced to blackened ash - as had the house next door and the one across the street.

"I am looking for my marriage licence and my insurance documents," Susan told me, "but it doesn't look as though I am going to have much luck".

Judging by the mangled mass of bricks and mortar I had to agree, yet like so many others who have lost everything here, Susan was stoic:

"The house we can rebuild, we just have to be grateful we made it out alive."

Scrubland location

Susan was well aware when she fled that she would have nothing to return to.

A fire was raging in woodland behind her house, showering the street with embers the size of golf balls. By the time she got in the car both her neighbours' houses were on fire.

Craig McGill
Craig McGill says his luck has left him feeling guilty
Rancho Bernardo is one of a number of middle class communities which have sprung up after the last few decades to meet the housing needs of a burgeoning Californian population.

Many - like Rancho Bernardo - were built on land which was once scrubland and brush. When the fires caught the wind those communities served as kindling for the flames.

Nearly 400 homes were lost in Rancho Bernardo alone.

'Charmed life'

On a neighbouring street I met Craig McGill. When fire engulfed the neighbourhood early on Monday morning he was probably the luckiest man in America.

Craig, who moved to Rancho Bernardo 11 years ago from Elderslie in Scotland, owns two houses on the same street - he lives in one and rents the other one out.

There are four houses in between - the fire levelled those houses, whilst leaving both of Craig's intact.

Burnt-out homes at the Barrett Lake Resort Mobile Home Park - 26/10/2007
The fires have shaken the normally confident state of California
As we spoke on the pavement, next to the smouldering remains of the neighbour's house, the owner emerged.

"How lucky are you?" he asked. "You are living a charmed life."

Craig told me he felt humbled by his good fortune, but also guilty. "My father told me good things happen to good people," he said, "but I have been incredibly lucky."

He now intends to devote his time and effort to helping his neighbours rebuild.

California is the richest state in the richest country in the world - its economy is bigger than that of most countries - and the response to this disaster has been commensurate with its economic muscle.

In terms of firefighting men and machines California lacks for nothing; as far as the relief operation is concerned, food, blankets and other supplies have been in abundance.

Yet the last week has proven that resources alone count for very little when Mother Nature is involved.

It is a stark reminder which has shaken confidence in this brash, can-do state.



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Aerial view of the fires at their height



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