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Esperanza fire victim's family gets a new home

Capt. Mark Loutzenhiser had been adding to his Idyllwild cabin before he died. Volunteers took over and started fresh.

June 30, 2007|Sara Lin | Times Staff Writer

IDYLLWILD — Capt. Mark Loutzenhiser was in the middle of building an addition to the aging, 800-square-foot cabin he shared with his wife and five children -- nothing lavish, just enough space so his kids wouldn't have to sleep in the living room.

But when Loutzenhiser, 43, a longtime firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service, died on Oct. 26 along with four crew members while fighting an arson wildfire near Palm Springs, this small mountain hamlet of 3,000 pulled together to finish the job.

Eight months later, the community and Habitat for Humanity's Riverside affiliate have built the family a four-bedroom house constructed entirely with donated money, materials and time from volunteers. The house will be dedicated today.

"I thought at first it wasn't going to be so extravagant because my dad was only planning to do one-third of that. But we're grateful," said Tesha Loutzenhiser, 17, the fireman's oldest daughter. "The community has been really great. We're happy."

Loutzenhiser's death hit Idyllwild hard.

He was well-known around town -- running sports programs, coaching youth basketball and volunteering his time for community projects.

"Everybody has their niche, and Mark could always be depended on if you needed a hand doing something, even if you just needed somebody to tell a joke," said Larry Donahoo, one of Loutzenhiser's close friends.

The man accused of setting the blaze, known officially as the Esperanza fire, has been charged with five counts of murder and faces a possible death sentence. The trial of Raymond Lee Oyler of Beaumont is expected to start early next year.

Hours after the fire captain was killed, Donahoo and a few others began crafting a plan to finish the work on Loutzenhiser's home. Riverside's Habitat for Humanity got involved, and the call went out in the local newspaper for volunteers.

About 200 people came forward, working anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks to paint, hammer or run a table saw. Those who couldn't work donated cash, and members of several local churches took turns providing hot lunches.

Such an outpouring of affection for one family might seem extreme in any other neighborhood. But Idyllwild residents are used to springing into action when someone needs help.

"We don't even have a stoplight, we're such a small community," said Joyce Gilden, 62, who helped coordinate volunteers. "Because it was such a tragedy, it just got to everyone's heartstrings. Everyone wanted to do something."

Early on, builders decided it would be easier to construct a new house rather than an addition to Loutzenhiser's 1926 cabin.

They followed a design put together by Maria, Loutzenhiser's widow, lining the walls with knotty-pine planks and a state-of-the-art hydronic heating system, said Allen Jones, the site supervisor with Habitat for Humanity.

Suppliers donated building materials or offered them at heavily discounted prices. Local contractors volunteered five-man work crews on the project three or four days at a time. They built the house with as many green materials as possible.

The cabinets, sinks and electrical switches haven't been installed yet, and the rooms are still bare. But the Loutzenhiser kids are already thinking about how they'll decorate their bedrooms.

Savanah, 12, plans to bathe her room in blue -- blue bedsheets, blue carpet, a night table painted blue.

Tesha, 17, will do much the same to match her green-leafed coverlet.

The 8-year-old twins, Seth and Kyle, will share the biggest room in the house, hanging remote-controlled airplanes built by their father from the ceiling. How the boys will squeeze two beds, a desk and four big boxes of toys into the room is anybody's guess.

"When we put our stuff in, I don't think it'll be that big again," Seth joked.

Their eldest brother, Jake, 19, is a U.S. Forest Service firefighter with the Vista Grande Hotshots and lives in Pine Cove, a mountain town just north of Idyllwild.

On Friday, the four younger children and their mother arrived at the house about noon, using rakes and shovels to spread wood chips over the dirt for today's dedication. Maria Loutzenhiser seemed overwhelmed at the attention and declined to comment, deferring to her kids.

After an hour of shoveling wood chips, the twins ran into the front yard and climbed atop a large boulder that had a plaque glued to it: "In Loving Memory of Mark Loutzenhiser ... Our Daddy was a Hero."

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sara.lin@latimes.com

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