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Out of Fire, Ties That Bind

Amid the ashes of homes and church, residents of a hamlet who prized privacy and self-reliance learn what community means.

June 11, 2004|Jia-Rui Chong | Times Staff Writer

HARBISON CANYON, Calif. — The Cedar fire leveled their red and white church in a whorl of flame, but the congregation continues to gather there for Sunday service. In a tent pitched under the shadow of a charred pine tree, Pastor Mark Mueller led the members of Emmanuel Christian Church in song one recent Sunday with palms raised:

Although the fig tree shall not


Neither shall fruit be on the


The labor of the olive shall fail

And the fields produce no food.

Yet I will rejoice in the Lord.

Rejoicing has not come easily.

In October one of the most destructive fires in California history consumed about three-fourths of the houses in this narrow canyon 30 miles east of San Diego. The blaze ripped through a row of businesses along Harbison Canyon Road, including the local watering hole, the Canyon Inn. Then it reduced Emmanuel Christian, and the pastor's house behind it, to ash.

Eleven of the church's 25 families lost their homes.

Many in the congregation began the ordeal together Oct. 26, when the Sunday service was interrupted by news of the approaching fire. Members scattered to evacuate.

Seven months later, as grasses and wild mustard spring up in the spaces between the blackened skeletons of trees, the canyon is coming back to life.

But it is a different place.

Before the fire, residents relished their privacy and self-reliance. Thickets of eucalyptus and scrub screened off almost all the homes in the canyon, offering a form of seclusion that many thought was the best part of living here. Members of the church fit the mold: They were cordial and would say hello to each other at Sunday services, but many friendships did not run deep.

Then came the flames. Frank Foley lost his home and had to accept help from others. Randy Papenhausen's house survived, but he faced the question of how much he could aid his neighbors. And Pastor Mueller became a leader in the recovery effort, only to realize how much he needed the strength of others.

"You didn't really know people for five or six years, then you're living with somebody," said church member David Hernandez, 46, whose family has taken refuge at the home of another congregant since fire destroyed their home.

The way Mueller sees it, the fire tore down walls between people -- much the same way it altered the landscape.

The fire burned off the trees and brush, exposing homes and home sites, one to the other.

"One side of the canyon used to not be able to see the other side," he said. "Now you can see."


Mueller and his family were vacationing at Lake Tahoe when the fire blew into Harbison Canyon. When he received the news, the 49-year-old pastor said he considered praying that God would save his property.

He didn't. "I felt the Lord wouldn't want me to," he said.

Mueller, his wife and their three children returned to the canyon a few days later, shocked at how clean the fire had scoured the hillsides and sickened by the smell of burned houses and cars.

The church, a 1950s Quonset hut finished with wood paneling, lay in a heap of cinders and twisted metal. All that was left of the Muellers' house behind the church was a black footprint.

The clergyman set to comforting his congregation with an attitude of thanks that no one lost their lives. Security and happiness do not lie in material possessions, he kept telling them. Consider the fire a tool God uses to free clutter from your life. He kept reminding himself of this too.

Within a few days, six church families who had lost their homes had arranged to stay with other congregants. Members of nearby churches offered to help rebuild Emmanuel Christian. But Mueller felt that the rest of town could still use help, so he joined Harbison Canyon's new emergency board.

The panel labored to return power and to distribute supplies. Mueller also thought he could help "hold heads above water" as a counselor.

But some in the community criticized him for not returning calls promptly enough or for delegating tasks, such as scheduling volunteers and trash bins, that he didn't feel he had the organizational skills to handle.

Mueller was working 16 hours a day. About five weeks after the fire, he hit the breaking point.

One Tuesday, after a day of trying to distribute relief supplies, Mueller found yet another box of donated goods in front of the trailer on his property. He suddenly had trouble breathing and his chest tightened. All he could think about was the multitude of tasks in front of him and the tiny trailer that he and his family were calling home.

He telephoned his wife. She came home. She booked them a hotel out of the canyon.

"It was pretty humbling," he said.

A few weeks later, he decided to take his family to his wife's family farm in Pennsylvania for Christmas.

Some in Harbison Canyon criticized him for leaving his flock in the middle of a disaster. But he and his children needed to get away from the grim landscape.

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