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But, Hey, We're Still Here

After losing nearly everything in a 1999 fire, a family counts its blessings

July 08, 2002|DUANE NORIYUKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's as if the flames never completely died. They flared again, almost three years later, as nearby Cajon Pass was burning and Connie Smith smelled smoke in the wind. The memories were familiar and dreadful, as though she could still feel the heat on her face, terror in her heart. For anyone who has ever lost a home in a fiery blast, it must be so.

In 1999, she and her husband, Chris, lost their Apple Valley home to the Willow fire, which began in the San Bernardino Mountains but lunged quickly down into the desert and to their front door. In all, it burned almost 64,000 acres and destroyed three homes. The fire in the Cajon Pass, before it was contained last week, would claim three homes of its own.

Already this year it has been a season of monsters as flames feast upon the dry West, causing those in their paths to flee, consuming hundreds of homes in Arizona, Colorado and elsewhere and leaving a climate of fear hanging in the air.

When fire claimed the Smiths' home, it took with it nearly everything they had accumulated during 40 years of marriage. They had moved to this place from Michigan in 1978 and bought the house in 1979. For 20 years, it was their home, where they planned to spend their retirement years.

Then, just like that, the wind changed direction.

Chris sometimes thinks that perhaps he should have stood his ground and put up a fight to protect his home. And there are times when Connie silently mourns the loss of keepsakes handed down through generations--antique dishes, an organ, paintings, photographs and the rocking chair in which she held her two children; but she does not allow herself to dwell on the past for long. "Stuff," she calls it now. "That's all it was."

And now there is more stuff, new stuff. With good amounts of insurance and faith, they have started over, building a new home on the site of their old one.

Connie Smith saw the for-sale sign one day in 1979 while driving with her daughter and was immediately impressed by the view of Apple Valley, Hesperia and Victorville. There are houses that make you feel at home from the moment you enter them, Connie says, and that is how she knew that this is where she belonged.

They had survived nature's fury before--the Landers earthquake 10 years ago and, in Chris' case, a tornado in 1941. Then, in 1982, they had their first encounter with fire. Flames reached the top of the ridge, maybe a half-mile away, but came no closer. When flames returned to the ridge in 1999, they were not frightened. Even when the helicopter came, warning residents to prepare for evacuation, they did not panic. "We ain't goin' nowhere," Chris shouted back at the sky.

Nor did they panic as they went through the house, gathering up their two dogs, a file cabinet drawer filled with important papers, a few keepsakes and photos. Chris and their son Terry, now 40, were closing windows against the smoke. The helicopter returned with a new message: Get out now.

"Me and Dad wanted to stay," Terry says. "but the smoke got so thick you couldn't breathe, and you could feel the heat, and my mom said, 'We need to get out of here right now,' so we got in the cars and left." They drove from the fire, then stopped to watch. The smoke was thick, and they could not see their home. A huge plume of black smoke exploded into the sky.

"That looked like somebody's house," Chris said, and he was right. Later that night, he and Terry sneaked back to take a look. Pockets of flames still flared in the darkness as they made their way. Chris was silent as he absorbed the thoroughness of the destruction.

"It was like he had the chair kicked out from under him," Terry says. "I don't remember him saying a word until we got home and he told Mom, 'We lost everything.' " That was Aug. 29, 1999, a Sunday, the Smiths' 40th wedding anniversary.

The next morning Connie went to the house with Terry. They turned the final corner, and she began to cry. She saw the ashes and stood, leaning against the car, sobbing. "God," she said, "this is too much. I can't handle this. You got to take care of it." From that moment on, she says, a sense of strength and peace came upon her.

Until she went shopping.

"I went to the store and thought, 'I don't even know where to start.' That was the only time I thought, 'I don't know how to do this. I don't know how to start over.' "

With two carts filled with toothpaste and aspirin, a potholder and pancake turner and toilet paper and clothes and things people take for granted until they are gone, the Smiths began to rebuild their lives. The cashier asked if she was getting married.

During the process of beginning anew, the Smiths say they learned two important lessons. One was that stuff is stuff and nothing more. The second is that faith is faith, and nothing less. "I could sit here and be in tears every day," she says. "It was devastating, but you can't live in the past. We came out of it alive. We have a new home. I'm more thankful now, more appreciative of what God gives you."

It doesn't work out so well for everyone. Not everyone rebuilds, not everyone ends up in a new house. The Smiths understand that, and they describe these last three years as a time of "miracles and blessings." Connie has retired from her job as a school secretary, and Chris from his, installing equipment in telephone central offices. They continue to move forward, focusing not on what is lost or gained in life, but on life itself. Two weeks ago, they were told to expect their sixth grandchild.

"We haven't had a baby around for a long time," Connie says. Perhaps it's time for a new rocking chair.

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