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Hearts Set on Getting Home

Blocked roads frustrate thousands. Others go back but are shocked at what they find.

November 01, 2003|Rone Tempest, Kristina Sauerwein and Christine Hanley | Times Staff Writers

Andrew Mastro hiked 19 miles up a steep, charred San Bernardino County mountainside, ignoring dead rattlesnakes and rabbits as well as human authority to make sure his small stucco house had been spared by the wildfire that attacked the mountain village of Rimforest.

The hunger for home, even if their homes are gone, has become a famine among Southern Californians displaced by wildfires over the past week.

Many have been permitted to return. Many others have not. Some of the latter, like Mastro, satisfied themselves anyway.

Authorities, citing safety concerns, continued Friday to prevent 45,000 to 50,000 anxious residents of the Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear communities from returning to check on their homes.

But a handful of people managed to circumvent police barriers to join several hundred others who had disobeyed evacuation orders.

"Maybe 300 stayed behind," said Mike Zack, 38, whose family owns a chain of mountain grocery stores.

"Others are sneaking up on back roads or on motorcycles."

San Bernardino County authorities said it may be days before roads are reopened. Mountain refugees, who have jammed hotels from Redlands to Pomona and filled a temporary shelter at a local airport hangar, have flooded government offices with requests to return.

California Highway Patrol Traffic Officer Richard Fonnet said he has heard every argument in the book from desperate mountain dwellers in the several days he has manned the roadblock at the San Bernardino base of Highway 18 leading up the mountain.

Many people, said Fonnet, claim to have left medicine, animals or even elderly relatives behind in their homes.

"One guy," Fonnet said, "begged me to go up so he could save his valuable Japanese Koi fish. He said they cost $3,800."

Residents turned back were frustrated. On Friday, three protesters on Highway 18 held signs that said: "Prevent Looting. Let Us Return to Our Homes."

By the time Mastro neared his home -- after a five-hour hike -- the area was covered in dense fog. He did not see his house, said Mastro, a father of three, until he was almost on top of it.

He was overjoyed to see that it had not been damaged, although 16 homes and businesses in Rimforest had been destroyed, including those of two close friends.

"I don't have a million bucks," said Mastro, peering down to the flatlands 5,000 feet below. "I don't live in Malibu. But look at this view."

Elsewhere, displaced residents were allowed home by official sanction.

As Shawn and Jennifer Helm approached their cabin in eastern San Diego County's Cuyamaca Rancho State Park on Friday morning, their spirits leapt when they saw that the home of some elderly neighbors had withstood the flames. Turning the corner, they found that their house had been transformed into blackened rubble.

"Seeing it today was like having someone kick me in the stomach," said Jennifer Helm, 29.

"I keep trying to remind myself that other people are worse off because they don't have insurance or lost more."

Shawn Helm walked to the back of the ruins and surveyed a slate walkway he'd recently installed to connect the house with a hot tub and a gazebo. The structures had disappeared, but the walkway, which bore handprints of their three children and the carved message "Shawn and Jennifer Forever," endured.

"This is probably our most prized possession now," he said.

At least when they rebuild the house, Shawn Helm pointed out, they'll finally have a view of Cuyamaca Reservoir. The big trees between them and the water were scorched and denuded.

In one north San Bernardino hillside neighborhood, residents whose homes still stood waited for electricity and other services to be restored.

Irma Arceo and her family, whose house was not burned, had mixed emotions about living with the reminders of neighbors who returned to destroyed homes.

Arceo, the mother of two, said her 11-year-old son felt guilty that his family was spared while others lost everything.

"I told him, 'Guilt is for when you do something wrong.' " Instead, she said, you should feel sorrow and empathy.

At San Bernardino International Airport, the former TWA hangar has been home to a thousand fire refugees. At the shelter were food, Starbucks coffee, an overabundance of snacks and candies, but nothing for the evacuees' thirst for home.

The gigantic shelter, established by the American Red Cross, features a "main street" of social services booths, a central buffet with three regularly scheduled hot meals a day, an around-the-clock health clinic, temporary banks and a large play area for children.

The refugees built cubicles out of spare cots to create semi-private spaces for their families.

The hangar echoes with the din of excited children who have found ready playmates in an atmosphere that, to them, seems vacation-like.

"It's just cool to hang out here," said 14-year-old Charles Cole from Crestline, as he shot pool with some of his friends from Rim of the World High School. "I'm off the mountain, for once."

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