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Fighting Flames, Fears

Stunned Homeowners Hope to Rebuild in Scripps Ranch

October 28, 2003|Dave Mckibben and Ann M. Simmons | Times Staff Writers

Greg "Merlin" Olsen was determined to see the devastation.

He sneaked through a back road, evaded police barricades and wandered through fire-ravaged Scripps Ranch on Monday for a look at his million-dollar home in the plush planned communitynortheast of San Diego.

As he approached the half-acre lot on Kingspine Avenue, where his 2,600-square-foot house had stood 24 hours earlier, Olsen struggled to remain composed.

The only thing spared by the wildfires that have ravaged parts of San Diego County was his children's swing set.

"My wife's hysterical. I'm trying to stay level-headed about this," said Olsen, 43, who owns several hot-dog stands and a business that manufactures laser cartridges for printers. "There's not much to do here. I just wanted to get some resolve."

Fire Department officials said at least 150 homes, most of them in the million-dollar range, were destroyed in Scripps Ranch.

The 30,000 people who live here are surrounded by forests of towering eucalyptus trees and hiking trails, neatly manicured landscaping, shopping centers and tidy business parks.

Under the slogan of "Scripps Ranch -- Country Living," the community, named for the Scripps newspaper family, has become one of the most prestigious neighborhoods in San Diego County.

Olsen was one of the few residents of the Whispering Ridge enclave who returned to their home.

Other property owners from areas of Scripps Ranch untouched by the blaze were able to return to their houses late Monday.

Olsen said he stayed with his house as long as he could, but an ex-Marine neighbor finally convinced him to leave. So he drove out in his 1996 Jaguar, his wife in the family's new Suburban with their children, Christine, 5, and Mathew, 7.

They abandoned their Toyota 4-Runner in the driveway, expecting it would be destroyed. But firefighters broke the driver's window and rolled the vehicle onto the street.

Now, as he sifted through the smoldering ashes of the house, Olsen retrieved pieces of his cherry wood piano, the granite from his kitchen countertop and a wire laundry basket -- now filled with ashes -- where clothing had been tossed Sunday morning.

His eyes welled with tears when he remembered that his deceased mother's picture was left behind.

"I told my kid you have PlayStation 1 you'll get PlayStation 2," Olsen said. "You have an old bike. You'll get a new one. Some things though are irreplaceable."

When Olsen first moved to the neighborhood in 1998, he spent around $50,000 to remodel the property, estimated to be the smallest home on the street. He didn't have enough money to swap his wood roof for noncombustible tile.

The neighborhood has always been vulnerable to fire. In 1999, Ellen Browning Scripps Davis, the oldest survivor of the family of San Diego newspaper pioneer E.W. Scripps, died in a fire in her historic home.

Two years later the city opened a $1.6-million fire station.

On Monday, most of the displaced residents from Whispering Ridge took shelter in the homes of friends, or at Mira Mesa High School, an evacuation center two miles away. Many sat anxiously pondering their next move.

Katy and Dean Luvisa, who spent the morning commiserating with neighbors and collecting household items distributed by the American Red Cross, said their first order of business was to reassure their two young sons that Halloween would go on. They just didn't know where.

"They asked how are we going to trick or treat now if our street's gone," said Dean Luvisa, treasurer for a wireless company.

The Luvisas had spent Saturday night at a Boy Scout camp near Ramona with many of their neighbors. Sunday morning, they were evacuated because the Cedar Fire had erupted four miles north of their campground.

By the time they made it back to Scripps Ranch, their street was almost entirely rubble. Only one of 40 houses remained.

"I suppose we'll rebuild," Luvisa said. "I can't imagine what the neighborhood is going to be like."

Olsen said he, too, would be sticking around.

"Scripps Ranch and Rancho Santa Fe are the only two places in San Diego I could live," he said. "I like wooded neighborhoods and nice big lots. I know the risk that comes with that, but I never imagined I'd fall victim to it."

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