Calif. neighbors return to ruins

In San Diego cul-de-sac, the shock of devastation

October 26, 2007|By Kirsten Scharnberg

SAN DIEGO -- One by one, the neighbors returned to the cul-de-sac at the end of Valladares Drive.

The Lyons home: gone. The Chaya home: ashes. The Bostwick home: leveled. The Dela Cruz home: impossible to recognize.

"I'm so sorry," Therese Dela Cruz, 24, told each of her neighbors as they came home yesterday afternoon to confirm that the ravenous Southern California wildfires had virtually wiped their entire end of the street off the map.

Dela Cruz, who had lived on that street for 17 years, gazed in shock at her family's home, now reduced to charred rubble. "Right there, that used to be my bedroom," she said with a sigh.

The scene on Valladares Drive in the Rancho Bernardo neighborhood of northern San Diego was repeated throughout the region yesterday as mandatory evacuation orders were lifted and tens of thousands of residents were allowed for the first time to return.

Traffic lights turned on and cars began to clog residential streets. But the air remained thick with smoke, ash and apprehension as the total number of the state's still-burning acres approached a half-million. The majority of fires remained far from being under control despite a calming of the dangerous Santa Ana winds.

State fire officials estimated that more than 1,800 homes have been lost to the blazes, far more than previously anticipated.

On Valladares, a little street routinely hopping with block parties, families who had been friends for years wandered from flattened home to flattened home, consoling their neighbors.

"Did you save anything?" Nora Chaya asked a neighbor. Chaya acknowledged only as an afterthought that she had fled her own house about 4 a.m. Monday without even her wallet or a change of clothes as flames crested the canyon that serves as her backyard.

The street's destruction didn't always make sense: A white picket fence still stood around a house burned to the ground. A child's bike remained in perfect condition inside a garage that no longer existed. One unbroken teacup and saucer were nestled inside a tipped-over, scorched dishwasher. A fountain in the shape of an angel looked brand new.

Of 10 houses situated on the circle at the street's end, only one remained, that of a widow everyone called the "neighborhood mother." As the neighbors gathered yesterday, they all worried about the widow, 75-year-old Helena Hyman. No one had seen her leave.

Yet there were few tears from these neighbors who had fled on a moment's notice when the blaze dubbed the Witch Fire turned unexpectedly up their canyon and threatened their homes in the middle of the night.

Most spoke of groggily waking up to reverse 911 calls - the automated emergency notifications that alerted hundreds of thousands of Californians that they must flee - and getting out only minutes before their houses started going up in flames.

"It happened so fast," Dela Cruz told one neighbor. "We literally just ran out the door in pajamas. My mother started grabbing pictures off the walls but then she saw how close the flames were and she got so scared that she put them down and didn't even bring them along."

Few saved much of anything, largely because fires had never threatened the street in the past and because they thought the Witch Fire was burning in another direction.

"I didn't grab my wedding rings from their holder by the sink," Chaya said. "We have nothing, but I wouldn't do it any differently. I wouldn't want to risk my family's safety for a single material thing. It all can be replaced."

That was the sentiment all around on Valladares.

"We're all alive," David Lyons kept saying. "It could be worse. We will rebuild."

Lyons and his wife, Lynn, even managed a hearty laugh at the fact that a wooden picnic table that the couple had long fought about had survived.

"I hated that table," Lynn Lyons said. "He bought it even when I said no, that I hated it, and it's been a source of contention ever since. Now look at it - the one thing to survive."

David Lyons looked triumphant. "And you know it has to be a centerpiece in the new house now," he said, as Lynn's father, a San Diego general contractor, walked the property and began making plans for what he would rebuild for the couple there.

The neighbors all reassured one another that they were staying, that they would rebuild better than before. Neighbors from a few blocks down the street, less touched by the fire, wandered down to the cul-de-sac with cold drinks and food.

One man whose house had survived unscathed seemed to feel almost guilty about it, but David Lyons hugged him and deadpanned: "Hey, a few houses had to stay standing so that I'd have somewhere to go and drink beer while we rebuild."

Yet for all their optimism, the Lyonses hadn't brought their sons, ages 2 and 5, back to see what once was their home.

Late in the afternoon, a stir went up on Valladares Drive. Hyman, the widow who owned the one house remaining on the cul-de-sac, had driven into her driveway. Everyone rushed over.

"Thank God you are all right," Chaya said, hugging the elderly woman who had long been in charge of organizing the neighborhood's frequent block parties. "We knocked on your door before we left but you did not answer."

Another neighbor shouted from across the street: "Helena Hyman, the luckiest woman in Southern California!"

Hyman gazed at her house, a vision of undisturbed perfection in a landscape of ruins. Ten houses on either side no longer existed.

One by one, the neighbors gathered in Hyman's driveway. She pulled out her keys, walked up to the front door and peered inside.

"It's just fine," she whispered, leaning against Chaya.

"We are happy for you," Chaya said. "You will come home first and we will all rebuild right where we once were. And when it is all back to the way it was, you will plan the block party to celebrate."

"Yes," Hyman said. "I can do that."

Kirsten Scharnberg writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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