Amid ashes, neighbors rally and new life stirs

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

In the Westwood section of Rancho Bernardo, ground zero for the Witch wildfire that burned more than 1,700 homes here last month, neighbors are adjusting to what they call the “new normal.”

Fire trucks have given way to street sweepers, utility vans and contractors. Signs thanking 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 away 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 scorched 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 after Stone returns from work as an accountant, 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.

Westwood seems haunted by fire. Stone says the neighborhood feels darker now, 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 after what happened.” She sniffs around her carpeted living room, sure that even after all the cleaning, she still smells smoke.

Neighbors across the street have trouble sleeping, disturbed by sounds of the wind that brought flames to their yards. They search for familiar house lights and remember again why they’re gone.

Even the kids have fire on their minds; they went back to school this week full of questions about why one house burns and another doesn’t. At Westwood Elementary, where three teachers and about 80 students (about 10% of the school) lost their homes, parents gathered for the traditional “Friday Flag” to watch their kids sing “This Land Is Your Land,” some singing through protective masks.

On Stone’s street, Azucar Way, a curving hillside sandwiched between two of the hardest-hit streets in Westwood, fire leaped over a hill and hopscotched between basketball hoops and over sidewalks to consume half a dozen of about 35 homes, jolting the rhythm of suburban life.

Amir Rezvani, 9, was pawing through the ashes of his former home Thursday. His sister, Leily, 7, couldn’t stop crying the first time she saw the wreckage. “I lived here all my life so far,” she said.

Recovery has become a team effort: Both the displaced and those left behind on Azucar, Spanish for sugar, long to return their planned community to the ordered way of life they had built.

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

They know the Rineharts just remodeled, and they 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 she works and her daughter lives, across from Westwood Elementary.

And they know Bob Noe, 66, who runs a medical software company, had his son and grandson living with him in the house that burned, leaving two families homeless.

Pat Sheffler, 43, is a virtual native of Rancho Bernardo, or RB, as locals call it, a graduate of Westwood Elementary and RB High, a former Little League player who now coaches. He moved to Azucar Way seven years ago, for a house with “Shefflers” spelled out in colored tiles on the garage, a place to raise three kids.

The fire destroyed the first home he and his wife bought in Westwood, threatened his parents’ home around the corner and burned the roof and side of his current two-story pink stucco home enough that he’ll be out of it for at least a year.

But Sheffler, who runs a marketing company, is not leaving. Just about every day he stops by the house, usually with contractors. He misses it, even in its state of disarray, with holes in the windows and roof and the pool a sooty black hole.

The Shefflers’ home for the week has been the luxury Rancho Bernardo Inn, but the inn has a convention this weekend and they have to leave. Sheffler hasn’t found another place to stay yet.

Teachers say his two oldest kids have become withdrawn. They miss their friends, their rooms, their world on Azucar Way.

“It’s a war zone,” Sheffler said as a dump truck passed his house. “I’m glad we won’t be here because it’s going to be hard to live here.”

Others were more profoundly shaken. The Shefflers’ next-door neighbors returned to their house thinking it had been saved only to find it reduced to a steaming heap of ash.

Sifting through the rubble to retrieve porcelain teacups from Germany, Leo and Juliet Pastor said they are “still up in the air, whether to rebuild or take the money and run.” If they leave, it would be a blow for the street: The Pastors are among the few original owners from 1984.

Neighbors worry that fire victims won’t return. They watch Bob 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 remodel 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 their 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 RB High who’s helping Nicole Rinehart, 16, replace her physics book and varsity letter jacket.

The Rineharts saved only what they could grab as they left and are staying in a rented house in nearby Rancho Peñasquitos. They plan to rebuild, but on a smaller scale -- one story instead of two -- and already had a bulldozer clearing the lot Friday.

Standing in the backyard, facing the wreck of her dream house and waving to the mailman and neighbors’ passing minivans, Kathy Rinehart said she’s concentrating on the intact pool, which gives her hope. She feels bad for neighbors who have to suffer the sight of all the rest.

They were watching her from their windows, eager to greet her. Soon her next-door neighbor, in leopard print sunglasses, 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 survived but that the Rineharts’ 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’d 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 Way is changing, some say for the better. The fire broke down all sorts of walls. Neighbors who found themselves disconnected from one another after they evacuated have compiled a list of cellphone numbers. And they discovered a quiet hero in their midst.

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

But the fire that destroyed his childhood home nearby brought out something 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 evacuate, he grabbed garden hoses to douse the burning palm trees and fences of neighbors he’d never met.

After the fire, word got around. Kathy Gregg, who lives across the street, took her son 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.