Homebound commuters on Interstate 8 often do a double-take as they glance at the homes along the south rim of Mission Valley. The setting sun often sets the many windows of Normal Heights hilltop homes ablaze.
On Sunday, the flames were not a reflection of the setting sun. And many of the homes are gone.
But the community of Normal Heights, 13,500 strong, will overcome the tragedy, attorney Steve Temko said Monday. Already, plans are afoot to help the homeless neighbors rebuild or find new houses in the neighborhood.
Temko and his family returned from the Del Mar Fair about 3 p.m. Sunday to find their 35th Street neighborhood thick with smoke, their neighbors fleeing the approaching flames.
"When we pulled in the drive in our van, a woman I didn't even know came up and asked if she could help," Temko said. The woman--Temko never learned her name--cared for his two youngsters while Temko and his wife loaded their van with valuables and prepared to evacuate. Their home was spared.
People help each other in Normal Heights, Temko said. The sense of community is strong. "And we are going to tackle this tragedy and turn it into an advantage."
Temko is chairman of the Normal Heights Development Corp. board, a nonprofit group that uses city, county and private grants for improvement projects, such as the community garden and a drive--"Think Green"--designed to gain support and money for improvements for a park at 35th Street and Adams Avenue.
Now, he said, he hopes to interest the city and Normal Heights into turning some of the burned-out canyon rim lots into a greenbelt.
If residents don't want to rebuild, "it would be much better to acquire the lots for a community park than to let developers build condominiums there," Temko said. "We certainly don't need more condominiums. This has been a terrible tragedy, but it would be worse if this natural disaster caused the community to lose its character."
Lois Miller, president of the Normal Heights Community Assn., was not as lucky as Temko. Her home burned down Sunday. On Monday, she was back, checking the site, planning ahead. Today, bulldozers will raze the rest of the structure in preparation for rebuilding.
The community group and the development corporation boards met Monday night to discuss just what could be done to help the homeless residents by speeding up the cumbersome machinery for insurance claims and below-market loans, if any are available.
Real estate salesman Stuart Weiser, a former Normal Heights resident, said many of the homes damaged and destroyed were the more expensive bluff-top buildings with views of the valley and Mission Bay. But others were modest bungalows built when the Normal Heights community was first started in 1906.
He toured the burned-out area Monday and reported that one of the destroyed homes was a $200,000 structure he had sold in December. Another was an older home whose owner recently decided to remodel and add another story rather than sell, Weiser said.
Alfred and Florence White are 35-year residents of Normal Heights and, when the orders to evacuate came Sunday, they put their two cats and one dog in the family car and drove a safe distance away.
"We had our animals with us, so we didn't go to the emergency shelter. We didn't want to impose. We just parked in the shade under a tree and waited until they told us we could go back home," Florence White said. "We are getting a little rickety, and it's a little hard to get around any more. But if there is anything we can do for the people who were burned out, we'll be glad to help."
Normal Heights is "a melting pot," she said, and census figures bear out her statement. Elderly people comprise 20% of the population, children account for 15%. The white population is 49%, with the remainder divided among Latinos, Asians and blacks.
Normal Heights' main street, Adams Avenue, once was the streetcar route and, at one time, there was a "normal school" at the edge of the community, which inspired the name. Later, the professional training school became a state teachers' college and subsequently was moved east to College Avenue and Montezuma Road. It is now called San Diego State University.