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A day of sifting on Bonsall street hit hard by Lilac fire

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More than a half-dozen houses went down while firefighters and residents scrambled to save others.

Saturday on Wrightwood Road in Bonsall was a time for sifting — sifting through memories, through tears, through ashes.

When the Lilac fire blew through here Thursday afternoon, it burned down at least seven houses on this hilly street, and it would have been worse if firefighters and a half-dozen neighbors hadn’t been there to put out flames that in some places licked to within a few feet of the outside walls.

So along with the lingering smell of wood smoke, there was a swirl of emotion up and down the road Saturday morning. People who lost their houses were grateful to be alive. Those whose houses still stood felt relieved, but also a little guilty, and they grieved for what their neighbors were going through.

It’s a street where everybody seems to know everybody else, if not by name then at least by sight. They shared hugs as some of them returned to their properties for the first time since the fire broke out.

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Dr. Geoffrey Smith, a veterinarian, came back to the rubble of what had been a two-story, four-bedroom, 2,250 square-foot house. He’s lived there since 1980 with his wife, and more recently also with his 93-year-old mother. They raised four kids there.

“It had views to die for,” he said. “It was also made out of wood, which is why it burned down.”

When the fire started, the 70-year-old bird and reptile specialist was at a veterinary seminar in San Diego. His wife fled with his mother, eight dogs and the two cats they could find (two went missing), and not much else.

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Smith said they knew from speaking with neighbors that their house had gone down, so on his way to the ruins Saturday — his family has been staying with relatives in Encinitas — his mind drifted to what else was probably gone.

A cherry wood cabinet he was making for his daughter in the barn out back. His family photos. Mementos grateful clients had given him. His wedding ring, which he’d taken off because his finger was swollen. A Bible his wife, Diana, had given him when they were married.

His eyes filled while recounting that last one. “Today is our 27th wedding anniversary,” he said.

Tears brimmed in Nicolette Birchall’s eyes, too. She lives across the street from the Smiths, and she said it pained her to see what had happened to them.

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Her own house survived, due in part to her husband, William, who stayed behind to douse spot fires.

“If you can be proud and mad at the same time, that’s what I was,” she said about his decision to ignore the evacuation orders.

They grew up in Bonsall, went to local schools, and bought their house almost three years ago. “I’ve always loved this valley,” she said. “I saw a wall of flame as I was leaving and to think it was going to all be gone was really scary.”

Then it wasn’t gone, and fear was replaced by gratitude. Her 12-year-old daughter, Brooklyn, made a sign they put up next to the driveway: “Thank you firemen for all of your hard work and effort.”

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Up the road, Mike Hulsizer was trying to be thankful, too. “I was going to have to put in new kitchen cabinets and counters pretty soon,” he said. “I probably saved myself $20,000 right there.”

He was joking, a kind of gallows humor in the face of the wreckage before him: The triple-wide, four-bedroom manufactured home he shared with his wife, Tami, gone.

His 1949 Oldsmobile, a restoration project he inherited from a friend who died from cancer and was nearly finished after five years of work, gone.

His Osprey Pilothouse boat — “I really love to fish” — gone.

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“We didn’t have time to get anything out,” he said.

On rural roads like Wrightwood, it’s shared gospel that keeping a “defensible space” around your house, free of combustible vegetation, is key in a wildfire. Patty and Tony Andrews think that’s what saved their house, even though ones on either side of it burned, as did much of their back yard.

“We did what we were supposed to do to be prepared,” Tony Andrews said.

The Hulsizers did that, too, though, and their house burned down anyway.

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But Mike Hulsizer wasn’t spending much time Saturday playing the victim. The 60-year-old construction supervisor marveled that their chicken, Ole Red, had somehow ridden out the fire in a coop, which was now littered with black ash.

He shook his head that his wife’s garden was unscathed, a zucchini on the vine looking ready to be picked for supper. Birds flitted around a feeder still filled with seed. A solar-powered bird bath was still filtering the water.

“How did that make it?” he asked.

His brother-in-law, Bill Bundy, came down from San Clemente to help him sift through the ashes. Hulsizer stood near the ruins, trying to figure out where his bedroom used to be, which would point him in the direction of the remains of his nightstand and items that might have survived the flames.

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“I don’t know where to start,” he said.

But he knows where he wants to end.

“We’re going to rebuild,” he said. “I believe something good will come out of this.”

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john.wilkens@sduniontribune.com

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