National News

In San Diego, Lessons on Rebuilding From a Neighborhood Once Ravaged by Fire

Posted December 10, 2017 9:05 p.m. EST

SAN DIEGO — When the scent of smoke from wildfires in the nearby hills began wafting through the San Diego air once again last week, residents in Scripps Ranch immediately thought back to 2003, when hundreds of homes burned to the ground.

They remembered watching television from shelters or friends’ houses to try to figure out whether their own house had gone up in flames. They recalled returning home to nothing but a pile of roof shingles and a solitary tin box. If they were lucky enough to have a door to unlock, they opened it to find ash raining down from the ceilings.

As they have for years, local residents are eyeing the towering eucalyptus trees that shade their streets with dread over their explosively flammable branches. They grimace each time they see a wooden fence in the neighborhood, thinking of it as a Roman candle that could shoot flames onto a nearby home.

Nearly 15 years after a wildfire incinerated more than 300 homes in this suburban neighborhood north of downtown San Diego, the vivid and often bitter memories of destruction and rebuilding come flooding back every time they hear about a fire in California. Before then, they never considered the possibility that a wildfire could eviscerate their cul-de-sacs.

Now, every time a fire gets within 100 miles — as it did again this week — residents ready a box with important documents, bottles of medication and copies of treasured photographs. They once again found themselves glued to the news, watching with the knowing sorrow that only survivors have.

A few refuse to talk about the fire, saying they cannot relive those days. Everyone here describes a rebuilding that took years. They say there is no way to predict precisely what will be most challenging for the thousands of California residents whose lives have been upended by fires this year.

“You’re having to make a lot of very big decisions financially and otherwise at a time when your mind is kind of reeling,” said Paula Baker, whose home on Pinecastle Street was destroyed in 2003. To receive insurance money, she recalled, she had to figure out how many T-shirts were in her drawers and what canned goods had been in her cupboard. “It was exhausting.”

More than 8,500 firefighters were battling six blazes across Southern California on Sunday. The largest, the Thomas fire, remained out of control and made its way from Ventura County into Santa Barbara County, burning more than 170,000 acres and 710 buildings. Officials ordered evacuations in parts of the wealthy coastal towns of Carpinteria and Montecito and warned that all residents should be prepared to flee.

The fire in northern San Diego County had been 60 percent contained by Sunday morning, but officials said that strong winds could easily rekindle the flames. After touring Ventura on Saturday, Gov. Jerry Brown blamed climate change for the growth and strength of wildfires.

“This could be something that happens every year or every few years,” he said. “We’re about to have a firefighting Christmas.” (BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.) It will not be the first holiday tinged by smoke at St. Gregory the Great, a Catholic church in Scripps Ranch. In 2003, an early Sunday Mass ended with cellphones buzzing as people realized their homes were in the path of the fast-moving fire. Many fled their homes assuming they would be back within hours, but instead were forced out for weeks.

The church soon became a hub for victims, as volunteers set up dozens of tents in the parking lot to hand out clothes, food, baby bottles, anything that might be useful. One volunteer batted down the idea of giving out Christmas trees, since many people had no place to put them.

(END OPTIONAL TRIM.) The 2003 fire eventually burned more than 280,000 acres, destroyed more than 2,200 houses and killed 15 people in San Diego County, one of the largest wildfires in state history. It hopscotched across and within neighborhoods, scorching some homes while leaving others untouched.

“We wanted a sense of normalcy as soon as possible,” said Cynthia Collins, who considers her family of seven blessed because their home suffered only smoke damage. “But we might have tried too quickly. It’s not the same normal.” (BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.) Collins said that she saw relationships of dozens of her neighbors destroyed in the aftermath of the fire, as they argued over what rebuilt homes would look like or whether residents with wood fences were to blame. Many couples divorced under the stress, she said, and she blames the lingering effect of the smoke for children and young adults suffering from cancer. She anxiously thought of it again this week, coughing on smoke just days after doctors said a lump in her daughter’s thyroid was benign.

Like others, Collins had thought of her home within city limits as completely safe. Her season of dread stretches longer and longer, as fires during the winter months become more common. She has vowed to never use wood on her property and urges other residents to do the same, but many have moved in since the fire and may not feel so vulnerable.

(END OPTIONAL TRIM.) The rebuilding here took years; in 2005 an article in the local newspaper found that just a third of residents whose homes were destroyed had moved back. In Scripps Ranch, the reconstruction drastically altered the landscape, turning single-story ranch homes into minimansions with turrets and Italian-style stone décor.

After Jim Kuhlken, a landscape architect, learned that his recently renovated house had burned to the ground along with about 50 others on his block, he came up with a plan to hire one builder for as many homes in the neighborhood as possible. His pitch was simple:“If we can do this as a group, we can do it a lot cheaper.”

Today, his 3,200-square-foot craftsman-style house includes his favorite addition: a courtyard with a fountain, a trellis and two Adirondack chairs. His then 15-year-old daughter helped decorate and later became an interior designer.

Dan Luka remembers the relief he felt when he signed with the developer that Kuhlken had helped arrange. It meant he could build a larger home with the same amount of insurance money and make fewer decisions — the kind of advice he would offer anyone starting to recover now.

“And install internal sprinklers,” he added with a bit of a grim chuckle. “Before the threat of fire was kind of academic. Today, I see everything as a potential fuse.”

Now, he feels his blood pressure rise every time he sees flames on television, smells even a whiff of smoke or hears helicopters overhead — just as he has for the last week.