A Calif. neighborhood returns to life

November 11, 2007|By Los Angeles Times

SAN DIEGO -- In Rancho Bernardo, ground zero for the Witch wildfire that burned more than 1,700 homes in San Diego last month, neighbors are adjusting to the "new normal."

Firetrucks have given way to street sweepers, utility vans and contractors. Signs thanking the firefighters are being replaced with ads for power washing and something called a smokeater, an industrial-strength air purifier.

Neighbors are walking dogs, pruning roses, feeding finches and skateboarding. They've done their best to clean up - hauling away downed trees and charred cars, sweeping, raking and scrubbing the signs of destruction.

But the specter of burned houses looms large. Driving the neighborhood, residents whose homes are still standing confront the skeletal remains of tract houses that mirror their own, a constant reminder of how close they came to losing everything.

Cindy Stone, 47, wakes up to the sight of three burned slabs across the street. She opens her back windows and sees another. Her son Andy, 12, walks to the bus stop each morning past more burned houses, and when Stone returns home from her job as a CPA, she follows a similar route as she takes the family's white terrier, Toby, to fetch the mail at a communal mailbox.

"We're going to be facing it a long while," she said.

Stone says the neighborhood feels darker, and not just because the flames took out a few street lights. She didn't put out jack o' lanterns this year - "somehow putting burning candles on your porch just didn't seem right." She sniffs around her living room, sure that even after all the cleaning, she still smells smoke.

On Stone's street, Azucar Way, sandwiched between two of the hardest-hit streets, fire leapt over a hill, hop-scotched between basketball hoops and over sidewalks to consume a half-dozen of about 35 homes.

Gary Davis, 65, a microelectronics engineer, stood in his driveway after clearing his yard, a sentinel remembering when neighbors used to shut down the street in the 1980s and throw block parties, back when all the families knew each other. Although there's more turnover now, a mix of young families, retirees and veterans, neighbors still find safety in knowing each other.

They know the Rineharts just remodeled and worry about Kathy, how she'll handle the holidays when her son returns from UCLA.

They know Janice Kessler saw not only her house burn but also the apartment complex where her daughter lives.

And they know Bob Noe, 66, who runs a medical software company, had his son and grandson living with him in the house he lost to the fire.

Leo and Juliet Pastor returned to their house thinking it had been saved only to find it reduced to a smoldering heap of ash.

Sifting through the rubble to retrieve porcelain teacups from Germany, the Pastors said they were "still up in the air, whether to rebuild or take the money and run."

If they leave, it would be a blow - the Pastors are among the few original owners from 1984.

Neighbors worry that fire victims won't return. They watch Noe counting damaged shrubs, his tangerines ripened by the fires, and Kathy Rinehart walking through the rubble searching for jewelry and her son's high school scrapbook.

The Rineharts had just completed a $200,000 remodeling of their four-bedroom house in June, 2,300 square feet of "everything you'd ever want." They had saved for five years.

The contractor who remodeled the house also lost his home in the fire. So did half the coaches in Mike Rinehart's Pop Warner football league and the counselor at Rancho Bernardo High who's helping Nicole Rinehart, 16, replace her physics book and letter jacket.

The Rineharts plan to rebuild, but on a smaller scale - one story instead of two.

Standing in the backyard, facing the wreck of her dream house and waving to the mailman and neighbors' passing minivans, Kathy Rinehart said she was concentrating on the intact pool, which gave her hope. Soon the Rineharts' elderly next-door neighbor, the one everyone looks out for, came trotting down the hill for a hug.

Rae Harvey got news of the fires while on vacation in Italy, her son reporting that her house had survived but that the Rineharts' house was gone. She felt so guilty, she said, "I didn't speak for a day and a half."

But remember, she told Rinehart, "I survived the Holocaust." Harvey also told Rinehart that she would get through the crisis and rebuild. She offered her home as a refuge, promising to watch over the Rineharts' lot and shoo away busybodies.

"Somebody was watching over me," Harvey said as she let Rinehart go. "They weren't watching over you."

Even as neighbors cling to their routines, life on Azucar is changing. They have discovered a quiet hero in their midst.

Michael Skube, 47, was a bit of a loner on Azucar, a software engineer who bought a starter home about a decade ago, then divorced and kept to himself.

But the fire that would destroy his childhood home nearby brought something out in the Rancho Bernardo native - a defensive instinct. He looked out and saw embers flying down from the hills "like red bullets," some as big as baseballs. Rather than flee, he grabbed garden hoses to douse the palm trees and fences of neighbors he had never met.

After the fire, word got around. Kathy Gregg, who lives across the street, brought her son over to meet Skube, introducing him as "the man who saved our house." Others have started referring to Skube as "the hero of the street."

Neighbors are even talking about throwing a block party in his honor, just like in the old days.

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