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Home Insurance

Burned Out in the California Hills

Paul Kassel was among the hundreds who lost their homes last fall in the firestorms north of San Diego. -- <b>As told to Walter G. Meyer</b>

How did you get the word to evacuate? At three thirty in the morning, I got a call from my brother Dan, who lives about five miles away. He said, "The flames are right there. You'd better get out." We took 15 minutes to gather up a few things, thinking we'd be right back.

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You were prepared? We were the poster children for the fire department on how to clear the brush around your house. I came back expecting that our house would still be there because we had worked so hard on clearing. But the fire came down a hill and started creating its own wind tunnel. A firestorm has the sense of an atom bomb. It knocked a giant tree over.

So the house burned? When I called the house and got a busy signal, I knew that was a bad sign. Then at about two in the afternoon, I went back with my son. There was a dead deer right in front of our gate. We just started crying.

Another brother lost his house in a previous fire? Dave's house was destroyed four years ago in the Cedar Fire that wiped out 1,500 houses in the San Diego area. Because of Dave's experience and advice -- we called it nagging -- to make sure that we were protected in every way and ready to evacuate, we were better prepared than most.

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You had plenty of insurance? On Dave's advice I shopped around and ended up with Chubb Personal Insurance. With the numbers Dave told me to make sure I had -- I paid $3,200 a year in premiums -- the company hasn't even suggested that it will not fulfill my policy. Chubb's adjuster said, "Mr. Kassel, I'm sorry to tell you this, but your house is a total loss." And I said, "No kidding."

How long will it take to rebuild? About two years. With design, demolition and site work, I figure they won't start for six months.

How much was the house worth? Approximately $3-million-plus. It was built in 1999 for former baseball player Howard Johnson. We have not yet determined the value of the contents -- maybe $800,000 to $900,000. I lost my whole baseball collection. I know it's just a baseball collection, but I can't get back Mickey Mantle's last jersey.

Really? Mickey Mantle's last jersey? Signed and framed.

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