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THE STATE | SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA FIRES

A Whole Town Is Gone

Cuyamaca is virtually burned away. Residents of the area must walk for miles to learn if their homes survived the fire.

October 31, 2003|John Balzar | Times Staff Writer

CUYAMACA, Calif. — This hideaway, bait-shop kind of village in the oak-and-outback of San Diego County entered our larger consciousness at the precise moment when it ceased to be.

On Thursday, after two days of fires, there was no town and there were few people. The ground was too hot to sift for memories. Live flames clung to the undersides of large branches. The road in was closed, endangered by falling trees and collapsing power poles.

Six miles to the north, nature still rampaged. Sixteen miles to the south, the California Highway Patrol blocked the way. "You can walk in, but you can't drive." That's what a patrolman told the evacuees of this gently sloped valley in the hills that San Diegans call the Cuyamacas.

There were 300 or so houses in this lakeside portion of the valley, perhaps as many as 400, plus attendant resort businesses. Debris blocked entry into the distant reaches, but from the road only two structures appeared to have survived: the volunteer fire station and the Lake Cuyamaca restaurant, general store and tackle shop.

Cuyamaca became famous when it was gone.

Not all of this stricken valley was so lonely, however. To the south, past the roadblock, evacuees hiked up the car-less Cuyamaca Highway -- California 79 -- toward the one-store, two-church village of Descanso. The faces of these residents were drawn in a grimace. Some had been told that their neighborhoods were spared. But, then again, they had heard all kinds of rumors in this unbelievable week. They wouldn't be easy until they knew.

Among the Descanso-bound hikers were Ivan and Mona Heckscher. She had grown up in this valley, married and brought her Danish husband here. Their home was once her parents' home. The two were evacuated at 3:50 a.m. Monday when the next ridge north ignited. On Thursday, they accepted a ride back. News reporters had been permitted to drive past the roadblock.

Anticipation was harrowing as the car wound up the slender roads.

Would this be a homecoming? Or not?

"There, turn at the mailbox! The next one!"

A homecoming it was.

Pumpkins still decorated the driveway. The red-washed wood planks of their cabin home were dirty with ash but unharmed. And there, look. The two kittens, Sadie and Silver, waited. They had run off when the urgent evacuation was ordered.

As shown on TV, tears are seldom contagious. In person, they almost always are.

"Come in, come in." The Heckschers insist. They apologize for the mess they left in the house. There was no electricity when they scrambled in the darkness to evacuate. And there is none now. There is no telephone service. No cell phone coverage. Almost no radio reception. A five-mile walk back to a car. Only stubs of candles remain in the candleholders. Mona searches for something to offer a guest. She presents the only thing at hand, a plastic pumpkin with Halloween candy.

It can be strange to strangers the terms that we set for ourselves, and then live by.

Ivan thinks of himself as the most cautious of people. Every morning when Mona leaves for work, he makes a note of what she is wearing.

Why? "You always hear on the news, when something has happened, and the police ask, 'What was she wearing?' " he explains. "No one ever knows. I know."

Yet they have endured three damaging winter floods in this home. And they knew an autumn like this one was bound to come. They talked about it. The trees that gave them cool shade and the brush that covered their valley like velveteen would someday be known as fuel. They figured that they were ready.

But Mona wasn't quite ready for that predawn nudge, and the firm voice of her husband.

"I didn't want to yell," he recalled, "so I just said, 'Honey, it's time to go.' "

"I can't get that out of my mind," says Mona, now fighting back more tears. "It just keeps coming back: You wake up and he's saying, 'Honey, it's time to go.' This house, these walls, they breathe with all the memories of what ... of all the ... everything.... Then it's time to go."

There is no struggle of emotions and no hesitation, though, when the Heckschers are offered the inevitable question. Will they stay?

"Of course," she says. "This is the very best place."

Ivan shrugs and adds, "Only crazy people live here." He smiles. For just a moment, there is something in the Cuyamacas to smile about.

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