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Ravaged by the 2003 Cedar fire, Harbison Canyon offers lessons for Northern California

During the last month’s heat wave, residents of Harbison Canyon tried not to worry.

Ed Humerickhouse went for his midday walk. Mary Manning designed a flier for the Lion’s Club while the children in her home daycare napped. Shirlee McAndrews drove to El Cajon for a swim, and Eutha and Bill Scholl rested in their garden, sparrows fluttering around them.

But with highs pushing 110 and humidity at 2%, even the most routine activities were strained. The wind chimes tinkling in the distance didn’t help.

Fourteen years ago, the sky was just as blue and cloudless when a deer hunter 17 miles away started a fire that, driven by Santa Anas, upended their lives.

In Harbison Canyon, there is no escaping the 2003 Cedar fire. It destroyed 287 homes in this tightly knit community as it tore across San Diego County, claiming 280,000 acres, 2,800 dwellings and 15 lives. Memories of such trauma are easily stirred this time of year.

“The fire will never not be part of our lives,” Manning said.

Other than leaving a legacy of apprehension and rebuilding, the Cedar fire fast-tracked changes that had been chipping away at the canyon’s identity. What was once a rural, affordable, even eccentric backwater became a more suburban and pricey enclave.

The transformation serves as an object lesson for the communities in Northern California caught up in October’s firestorm: No matter the topography, identities of neighborhoods — subdivisions or scattered homes in the urban-wildlife interface — are at risk when they burn down.

Fire is the great equalizer, and what rises from the ashes seldom resembles anything like the past.

A half hour from downtown San Diego, Harbison lies in the whorls of San Diego’s peninsular range. A seasonal creek and a winding road divide the steep-walled community hidden between the towns of Crest and Alpine. The chaparral-clad peaks of Ironsides Mountain and Chocolate Drop rise side-by-side to the east.

Sitting in the park and wearing a Stetson with a $2 bill tucked into the hat band, Humerickhouse — locals call him Mayor Ed — remembers that Sunday morning in 2003. He had dragged a chair into his driveway and watched the smoke smudging the northern sky.

When he got into his Jeep to investigate, he didn’t like what he saw: an absence of firefighters on this southern flank. It was enough to persuade him to evacuate.

With the fire rolling down Ironsides like a wave, Eutha Scholl and her husband, Bill, wrapped up her antique cuckoo clocks and drove away. She wasn’t about to repeat her experience of the 1970 Laguna fire when she and her family took refuge in a neighbor’s basement.

“Probably the worst thing we could have done,” she said, recalling the fireman’s reprimand, but they were lucky: The inferno skirted the property.

Afterward, Harbison Canyon became known as a fire trap, a place where flames don’t pass through; they linger and double back.

Mary and Ed Manning moved here in 1976. Her parents warned them. The canyon had a reputation — Hell’s Angels, local gangs, meth heads — but it was all the couple could afford: $30,000 for a 1,000-square-foot fixer-upper.

As the Cedar fire approached, Ed cleared the perimeter and turned on the sprinklers. Mary packed, and without much conversation, they decided she would leave.

Halfway out she realized the mistake. She needed to help him, but it was too late. The police weren’t letting anyone back.

With hoses and buckets, Ed fought the fire all afternoon, lucky not to lose water pressure. The smoke grew so dense he thought night had fallen. Propane tanks ignited like rockets.

Insurance companies called it a clean burn, a fire so hot that even the soot was consumed. As Shirlee McAndrews drove into the canyon with her husband and teenage son the next day, she thought about those test villages in Nevada leveled by atomic blasts.

After leaving their car at a roadblock, they walked by smoldering telephone poles, their bases burned through, swinging from wires. Cars reduced to heaps of molten metal. Homes distinguished by only a chimney or something that might once have been an appliance.

The family had lost their home. As McAndrews explored the yard — hissing and popping of embers around her — she found the ceramic sun face, her 2002 Mother’s Day present, hanging on a portion of the patio cover still standing.

If he can still smile, she thought, so can I.

When Eutha and Bill Scholl drove into the canyon, ash blew like silvery snow. Their house, a converted 1927 fishing cabin, was OK, but this was what the fire did: It created a crazy quilt of homes intact, others in cinders.

Residents explained it by the vegetation or the lack of vegetation or the exterior paint or just the will of God.

But little of that mattered to the Scholls. They had to look after Eutha’s mother, 69, whose home up the street was ankle-deep in ashes, all her cherished mementos, including her teddy bear collection, gone.

Virginia, who died seven years later, never felt at home in the canyon again, Eutha said.

When Mary Manning reunited with Ed, she collapsed into tears and dry heaves and followed him around that day “like a puppy.”

Their canyon was dead and silent. Gone were the songbirds, the lizards, and when the wind kicked up, clouds of ash enveloped them.

“Pompeii,” one resident observed.

Mayor Ed found it so unrelenting that he would drive out of the burn area, just to look at something green.

::

Neighbors wandered through the ruin like zombies in handkerchiefs and surgical masks. They sifted ashes for any remnant of their lives. They traced the footprint of old rooms where meals had been shared, babies conceived, plans for their future laid out.

They told themselves that they were lucky — no one from the canyon had died in the blaze — but they didn’t feel so lucky: home, hearth, all that they knew themselves by, disappeared.

“Sure, this is just sticks and stones, but this is your security,” Mary Manning said. “We take for granted that these houses and all this junk will always be here.”

Her daycare children playing at her feet, she points to that junk — her grandfather’s duck decoys, Aunt Iva’s treadle sewing machine, a milk canister dating to her family’s arrival in San Diego — as if to say, this is who she is.

Canyon residents added survivor to their identity as reconstruction got started. A bulletin board called for volunteers and advertised sand bags and motor homes. Another directed residents to blood pressure monitoring at the first aid tent.

“The best thing I can do is to listen and hug and empathize as best as I can empathize,” President George W. Bush said after walking the neighborhood streets 10 days later.

The county brought in portable toilets; the Red Cross, food, water, medicine; the Federal Emergency Management Agency, hot showers and a bank of telephones. Bulldozers cleared foundations. Chain saws whined through oaks. Flatbeds hauled away hundreds of immolated vehicles.

Residents fended off the looky-loos. “Can I take your picture?” Shirlee McAndrews remembers being asked.

They kept an eye out for looters, who stripped copper from downed power lines, and they tried to evict the squatters: mostly former renters who set up in the empty lots and homes.

By Eutha Scholl’s estimate, more than half the residents of Harbison Canyon never returned after the fire.

“People run away from grief,” she said. “They didn’t stay and deal with their feelings of loss or abandonment, and there was a feeling that God had abandoned them.”

Those who stayed could see that life in the canyon would never be the same.

Named for a beekeeper who arrived in California just after the Civil War, Harbison Canyon was subdivided in 1926 as a getaway for San Diegans. Lots in this unincorporated stretch of the county were small, plotted for weekend cabins: 600-square-feet of pine siding, little or no insulation.

As San Diego grew, owners added on. Closets became bedrooms; bedrooms were pushed into the backyard; backyards grew crowded with the detritus of year-round living.

A church set up in a Quonset hut, and a nudist camp in a trailer park. Mayor Ed once rode his horse into the neighborhood watering hole, the Canyon Inn.

Meth cooks set up labs, and the Big Oak Ranch drew a rowdy crowd to its country-western stage until the county shut it down in 1983. The next year, the owner shot and killed his son-in-law — “a drug freak” — on the property.

By 2003, some of that coarseness had smoothed out, but the community was divided between oldtimers and newcomers. The Cedar fire settled all debate. When the Canyon Inn burned down, it wasn’t rebuilt.

“Urban renewal by fire” is how Mary Manning describes it.

::

Shirlee McAndrews remembers looking at her home — construction underway — and wondering if their lives would ever get back to normal. They were living in a 38-foot trailer, and there were times when they wanted to throw in the towel, she said.

They weren’t alone. Families — jammed in trailers, trying to hold onto their jobs, dealing with the county and insurance companies, supervising contractors, raising their kids — reached breaking points.

“You could hear the fights,” McAndrews said.

Money was the breaking point, especially for the families who hoped to build a dream house in the wake of their loss.

Contractors, chasing insurance claims and FEMA payouts, made promises they couldn’t deliver.

Residents learned that their homes, gerrymandered with new additions, were underinsured and had to tap into savings to make up the difference. Once they moved in, they found themselves unprepared for the higher property taxes.

Four years later the recession arrived, and bad loans came due. With no comparable sales to support the listing prices, selling was out of the question.

Thinking of the communities in Northern California ravaged by fire, Scholl has advice. “Go slow,” she said. “Rebuild as a community, not as individuals.”

She wishes the residents of Harbison Canyon had.

Their 1927 cabin survived, but water damage from the altered drainage made it unlivable. Last month the couple tore it down and is waiting on the delivery of a modular home.

::

Fourteen years later, Harbison Canyon is a hodgepodge of a few old cabins, stucco rebuilds and mega-mansions pushed to the edges of their lots. One three-story home with arched balconies, known as the Hotel del Canyon, looks down upon McAndrews’ backyard.

The local planning committee, Manning said, is wrestling with increased traffic, overtaxed septic systems and a call for sidewalks and curbs — a push for “city-fication.”

“When I was younger,” Scholl said, “the homes were known by the families who lived there: the Stevens, the Wagners, the Warners. Now we have numbers and fences.”

thomas.curwen@latimes.com

Twitter: @tcurwen

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