Grateful despite the loss

Times Staff Writers

Steve Stout recently returned to his burned-out hulk of a house in Rancho Bernardo to put up a Christmas tree -- a symbol of hope for the future. The family gathered around the tree for a picture, which they used for Christmas cards.

“All we lost were things,” Stout said. “Nobody was hurt -- that’s what is important. Family is important; things can be replaced.”

This year, Stout and his wife, Debby, and two grown children are spending Christmas in Maryland with family, telling stories of the morning they were given 15 minutes to flee their dream home. They grabbed a few family pictures as flames from the Witch fire raced toward their house.


“You turn the page and move on,” Stout said. “Granted, this will be the biggest page we’ll ever turn. We have our kids, and we have our lives.”

Two months after the wind-driven fire destroyed 1,700 homes in San Diego County, residents like the Stouts are spending their holidays in hotels, motels, rentals, homes of family members and, for residents of the devastated La Jolla Indian Reservation, mobile homes provided by the federal government.

Months of wrangling with contractors, insurance agents and building inspectors may lie ahead, but this Christmas there is for many a shared sense of relief and the realization that it could have been much worse.

Like many others, the Stouts hope to begin rebuilding soon. They’re renting a two-bedroom apartment not far from the site. “We’re going to have one big slab party” when construction begins, Stout said, laughing.

At the La Jolla Indian Reservation in the northeastern part of the county, Vonda and Ben Rodriguez are living in a mobile home provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The Poomacha fire scorched 90% of the reservation, destroying 55 homes. Among the structures lost was the home where the Rodriguez family had lived for 20 years. Today, the Rodriguezes will be with relatives in San Diego.

“We’re at loose ends,” said Ben Rodriguez, 76. “We don’t have a home anymore. We never realized that we could ever become homeless.”

The federal government is moving to rebuild the reservation homes. Vonda Rodriguez, 62, hopes to move back “to a real home” by summer.

“You get older and things like this get harder,” she said. “I’m just so glad that nobody was killed, so glad. Thank God.”

Tom and Bunny Sheffler are also thankful that San Diego firefighters made a stand on their street. Homes adjacent to the Shefflers’ were destroyed, but their home of 31 years sustained only moderate damage.

The family is living in the local Marriott Residence Inn until repairs can be done. “It’s cramped; it’s not home,” said Bunny Sheffler, 66.

But for Christmas, the presence of family makes the disruption bearable. “We’re fine,” said Tom Sheffler, 69. “We’re with family.”

Rancho Bernardo, with 365 homes destroyed, was one of the hardest-hit parts of the county. “This was a fine community, and it’s going to be rebuilt even finer,” Sheffler said. “We’ve all gotten a lot closer through this.”

As a Marine, retired Col. William Davis, 84, was unaccustomed to retreating in the face of any enemy.

But when he and his wife, Isabel, 83, were ordered to evacuate, they hurried to Qualcomm Stadium while their Rancho Bernardo home of 32 years burned. The couple grabbed their cat, Dusty, and fled.

“I got banged up in Korea, but what do you do with flames?” William Davis said. “We did what we were told, and we evacuated.”

Like the Shefflers and several other families, they’ve taken up residence at the Marriott. Davis family members have rallied, and on Sunday night, the family was toasting the holiday with champagne while Isabel Davis baked and frosted cookies.

“It’s a little difficult to start over, but here we are and we are going to rebuild,” she said.

Davis, who fought at the battle of Chosin Reservoir in Korea, lost all his Marine mementos, including his manuscripts about Marine history.

But when a former subordinate from Korea heard of the destruction, he sent Davis his own medals and commendations as a replacement.

“People are great,” Davis said.