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SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA FIRES

A Double Dose of Bad Luck

On a street in the tiny community of Crest, some residents whose homes were destroyed in a 1970 fire lose out once again.

October 29, 2003|Stuart Pfeifer and James Ricci | Times Staff Writers

EL CAJON, Calif. — After an absence of 33 years, ravenous wildfire came calling again on Crest Drive, selecting which homes it would devour as capriciously as it had the last time.

Some houses it spurned on its last visit, in September 1970, it consumed this time. Some that it consumed then, it spared now. And, as in the case of Judi Richardson's home, some that it destroyed before, it destroyed again.

Crest Drive is a short street, scarcely a quarter-mile long, that runs north along the southeastern edge of Crest, a tightly woven mountain community of 2,100 blue-collar and middle-class people east of here. On Sunday, fire destroyed 21 houses on the street, leaving 16 homes and little St. Louise de Marillac Catholic Church standing.

On Tuesday, Richardson stood in the roasted adobe shell of her 2,200-square-foot house on the street's west side picking, discouraged, through the charred rubble and broken roof tiles in what had been her living room.

Across the street, on the east side, the brick fireplace chimneys of 11 houses the fire had burned to the ground stood like a row of tombstones. The view east from the ruins, in better times a stunning vista of the Dehesa Valley and the Laguna Mountains, was obscured by thick smoke hanging from a brown-gray sky. The water in one neighbor's ravaged swimming pool looked like cola with bobbing chunks of blackened wood.

Richardson, a 58-year-old dental hygienist, marathon runner and world traveler, had lost everything -- the rugs from Turkey and Tibet, the ceramic ginger jar from China, all the antique furniture she'd collected, the 1963 Porsche in the garage, the 25 years' worth of running medals and the blanket one of her patients had fashioned out of her many running-event T-shirts.

"This is the history of my life," she said. "It's all my memories. Everything in my house had a story. I just hope I don't get Alzheimer's and forget them all, because all my pictures are gone."

She'd done her best, she said, to prevent this from happening to her house again. In 1970 she had just bought the place and was having it remodeled when the first fire came and erased it and about 100 others in Crest.

She hadn't even moved in or gotten the place insured. So, when she had it rebuilt, courtesy of a low-interest government loan, she'd insisted on 22-pound adobe blocks for the exterior and three-quarter-inch Spanish tile for the roof. "How could I do any better?" she asked. "I tried to think of the most fireproof materials."

Two houses up on the west side of the street, 59-year-old Richard Askey wondered why his place was spared when Richardson's, the house between their houses and the house on the other side of him, had succumbed. Askey's house was unscathed except for windows cracked by the heat on both stories of the house, and partially melted vinyl window blinds on the second floor.

Like Richardson's, Askey's house had burned down in 1970, and, like Richardson, he'd rebuilt it to be fire resistant, with tan brick and tile roof. Like most of the neighborhood's residents, Askey had been evacuated Sunday afternoon as the latest fire approached. A neighbor who'd stayed, however, said two firetrucks kept the place doused with water.

"They found one they thought they could save," Askey guessed. "You have a shake roof, and they let it burn."

Wildfire had a way of giving newcomers on Crest Drive an infernal welcome. Askey, his two children and his pregnant wife, Beverly, had been in the house for only a month when it was destroyed in 1970. They hadn't even made a mortgage payment. For a year afterward, the family lived in a trailer.

And Askey's current neighbors to the immediate south, between him and Richardson, had moved in just a month ago. Their house burned Sunday, too, just as it had in 1970. The couple and their 10-year-old son were so new to the neighborhood that Askey hadn't yet learned their names.

Across the street, on the east side, Arlon Christensen's house, and that of his son Butch, were among the ruins marked by the chimney-tombstones. When he'd bought his home in 1971, Christensen knew fire had visited the neighborhood the previous year, but the houses on the east side of Crest Drive had been spared, and, in any case, "I walked out on the deck on the porch and looked at the view and I said, 'I want to live here.' I didn't even go inside."

After the family's first holidays in the house, Christensen replanted their Christmas tree in the frontyard. It grew to 60 feet. During that time, Christensen's son grew up and bought the house next door. The grandchildren could walk out their kitchen door to their grandparents' house.

On Tuesday, both houses were gone, and the erstwhile Christmas tree was a giant, charred corpse.

Despite what they've lost or stood to lose, neither Richardson, Askey nor Christensen plan to abandon Crest Drive. "I'll rebuild," Richardson said. "What else can I do? My family is here. My social life is here."

Askey said, "I didn't think a second fire would happen. Lightning's not supposed to strike twice. But for the next 20 to 25 years, you're safe. Should be the rest of my life."

Christensen vowed, "I'd never move off the hill. Never. There's not a greater place to live than out here. People, once they move up here, they just don't leave."

Askey's 25-year-old son, Bob, was going to be the exception.

He'd just sold his home on Eucalyptus Drive, a block west of his parents' place, in order to move his grading business to Arizona.

The house was in escrow when it burned down Sunday. Wildfire on Crest Drive apparently has also an infernal way of saying goodbye.

The younger Askey, his father said, has since decided not to move, but to rebuild and remain in the community where his parents and two adult siblings live. After all, there will be a lot of construction work in Crest in the weeks and months ahead, a great need for grading contractors.

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