And yet, all was not lost

Times Staff Writer

The Tonkinsons remember last holiday season as their first in a new home. This year will be remembered as their first one without it. The blue San Bernardino ranch house with white shutters and picket fence, prized as much for being the first as for the hard work put into it, was incinerated in the firestorms that ravaged Southern California last month.

The family of four -- Brad, Melanie, 5-year-old Jeremy and 1-year-old Zachary -- feel fortunate to have shelter, but it's hardly the same. Their remodeled and refurbished 1,500-square-foot home, with its fresh carpets and cream-colored interior, has been replaced by a pre-fab apartment in Rancho Cucamonga.

Family antiques, cozy furniture and warm memories have been exchanged for the rented, the borrowed and the unfamiliar, all at a time of year when home means the most.

Weeks after the blaze, the family's sense of loss still is palpable. And so is their yearning for their Waterman Canyon home. Last week, bulldozers razed the small plot where the house in which they lived when Zachary was born once stood. "I'm not going to look," said Melanie, 27, with her back to the rumble of heavy machinery. "I don't have time to fall apart."

Like thousands of families made homeless after one of the West's worst natural disasters, the Tonkinsons are in a state of transition, pulled between the memories of the home they lost and the dream of the one they want to have again. Their lives have been disrupted and often put on hold in order to manage the avalanche of details required to get their old ones back. New neighborhoods, schools, commutes and routines.

Although exact numbers are unavailable, aid organizations report that the vast majority are making do in the temporary shelters -- hotels, the homes of friends or family, apartment or house rentals. A few, usually without insurance or deep roots in the community, took the tragedy as a sign to move on and already have left the region.

But the heat and flames galvanized the Tonkinsons' feelings for their canyon neighborhood and home.

Where once the family toyed with rehabbing and selling it within five years, they now are committed to rebuilding there. The fire made them realize the hard work they'd invested in transforming a musty old house with a bad floor plan into an airy, relaxing home.

"This is where our kids are going to grow up," Melanie, a substitute teacher, said at the site last week. And there will be more of them, though their next child won't be arriving as soon as the couple had originally planned. Before the disaster, they were going to start trying for another in January, but not now. Not until they know when they'll return home, which they've been told will be at least a year.

Of more immediate concern is the troublesome chore of choosing a contractor. They've interviewed three and expect to talk to several more. The couple want a 2,000-square-foot home with four bedrooms -- one more than they had -- to accommodate another baby.

The sticking point, however, isn't over size or design, but control. Brad, a 28-year-old tile worker skilled at home improvement, wants the couple to be in charge of building, so he would like a contractor content with being a project manager. But demand for builders is high because of all the displaced residents, and Brad is anxious about it, afraid he won't get the authority he wants.

Talking to contractors usually means driving back out to their old home, often a painful, emotional exercise, especially for Melanie. With Brad at work that horrible day, she was the last one out, and with a barking dog and crying baby in tow. Yet, she still feels guilty about not saving more of their belongings.

"I was like, 'Oh, my God, I didn't get your this, or I didn't get the baby's that,' " said Melanie, who has known Brad since they were 8. "I felt terrible."

Between rebuilding a home and creating a temporary life in a strange town, there have been many moments of tension between the couple. "It's like a constant tug of war," said Brad. "I've got to go to work, but I've got to take care of all this stuff. And she's got to take care of the kids, but she's got all this stuff to do too. We have moments where we come together and we have moments where we hash it out pretty good."

Housing for now is a two-story, three-bedroom apartment in a gated apartment complex about 25 miles from their home.

It's the third roof over the family's head since the fires. Unlike hundreds of others, they were spared sleeping in shelters. The first night, they were with Brad's mother in the San Gabriel Valley, the next five nights with a cousin in Rancho Cucamonga.

Once in their current residence, Melanie faced the challenge of establishing a sense of home in a transient place. Insurance money, which helped pay for the apartment, also has allowed them to rent furniture. An aunt has lent them an eight-place setting of dinnerware. And one of Brad's grandparents gave them a rocking chair.

"This is our home even if it's just for a year," said Melanie. "I want it to be comfortable and to remind our boys of home."

Floral arrangements adorn the dining room table and the upstairs bath. Burgundy throw pillows are placed neatly on the couch's corners, and the dining room table gets the same style place mats as in their old house, except they're green now instead of white.

But there is much that won't be improved because of the impermanence.

The white walls are going to remain so, said Melanie, who was fond of off-white, creams and yellows in her old home. And the walls of the master bedroom are bare, except for a mirror. Still, the room affords a good view of the mountains.

"It makes me think of our home," said Melanie, pointing at the hills in the distance. "But last week it just made me more depressed because I wanted to get back there."

A small touch of old that survived the fires rests on a dresser in the master bedroom. A porcelain cast of Melanie's baby shoes was discovered amid the ashes. The gold lettering of her name and pink flowers are still bright and clear on one side; the other side is scorched.

"Anything we found, we're displaying," said Melanie. "We don't care if it's burnt."

A few holiday decorations are going up too. A snowman sits in the corner of the living room, and a Christmas village, something out of Dickens, is on a living room side table. A tree will come soon and maybe a wreath or two, but that probably will be it. The precious family Christmas ornaments lost in the fire can't be replaced just yet -- they're simply too expensive.

"We don't have a lot of money right now," said Melanie. "I'm waiting for the after-Christmas sales to buy next year's decorations."

As the Tonkinson family sits down for Thanksgiving today -- spending it as they customarily do with family in Big Bear -- Melanie already knows what she'll give thanks for: "We lost a lot in the fires, but I have my kids, my husband and my health, and that makes it all OK."

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