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Sharing lessons forged in fire

A group of San Diego County homeowners who rebuilt knew they had a mission when disaster struck again.

February 21, 2008|Molly Hennessy-Fiske | Times Staff Writer

LAKESIDE, CALIF. — As firefighters battled flames and evacuated northeastern San Diego County in October, a group of Cedar fire survivors did what they wished someone had done for them five years ago.

They headed out on fire watch.

David Kassel, 53, the group's founder, drove over to Billi-Jo Swanson's horse ranch with his fire hose to help wet down brush.

Steven Murray, 54, rode his motorcycle above San Vicente Dam to investigate reports of flames climbing the hill.

Then Kassel and Valentine "Val" Lance, 67, motored out to keep tabs on Wildcat Canyon Road, a major thoroughfare to Ramona that firefighters kept closing. The pair advised residents whether to stay home or evacuate.

That kind of expertise was hard won. Five years ago, they met as shell-shocked strangers, burned out by the Cedar fire -- the state's worst in 75 years -- which consumed 273,000 acres, killed 15 people and left more than 3,000 homeless.

Survivors convened on Thursday nights in the Lakeside storefront of Maine Avenue Tax Service. They were academics and ranchers, Democrats and Republicans, exurban neighbors who wouldn't have said more than hello at Starbucks before the fire.

Week by week, they helped each other through illnesses and other crises. The group grew from 10 to 50, adding an online list of many more. Some rebuilt bigger and better, and dropped out of the group. Others faltered and still haven't rebuilt.

Then the wildfires returned to San Diego County. New fire victims began turning up at meetings, adrift and alone, and the dozen remaining regulars realized that they had a new mission.

At one of the Cedar fire group's first meetings, a dozen survivors sat in a circle and took turns telling their stories.

Kassel, a branch manager for a gate company, sat with his wife, Kathy, 50. White-haired Alma Russell, 66, came with partner Alvin Minnick, 70. Debbie Williams, 47, brought her two kids. Lance, a retired British biologist, had his golden retriever Camillo at his feet.

Russell cried as she told about her tenant of 10 years who rescued a neighbor, then became trapped by the flames and returned to her bed to die.

At a later meeting, Lance told the group how four of his neighbors died trying to flee the fire, including a man stranded in an RV with his Irish wolfhounds.

A few meetings later, Kassel asked the group if they wanted to talk about their emotions. They said no. They weren't ready.

He never asked again.

"People talk about not so much their feelings as the situation they're in," Kassel said. "You don't have to say 'I feel this way.' We know."

In those early days, the group was overcome by a numbness that Minnick described as "doubled-over painful."

They were lonely. Family and friends were sick of hearing them complain about dealing with trash haulers, county permits and insurance.

They were weighed down with binders of paperwork, straining to remember how many electrical outlets they lost in the fire, how many light fixtures and drawers full of -- they couldn't remember just what, but surely something they would miss in a year or two.

Some didn't have insurance, or discovered soon after the fire that they were underinsured. They couldn't afford to rebuild. Others weren't sure they wanted to.

Together, they found their way.

Swanson, 63, the rancher, needed to rebuild for her 26 quarter horses, but she didn't have insurance on the little adobe house her parents built in the 1920s, and she didn't want charity.

Kassel's wife, Kathy, and other members of the group persuaded Swanson to accept the assistance of a group of Christian volunteers, who helped her build a new house about two years ago.

After Minnick's kidneys failed last year, Lance and others kept working on his house until he was healthy enough to return.

When another group member's wife fell, hit her head and was hospitalized, Kassel and others took turns ferrying him to the hospital and to meetings.

And when an evacuation order was issued for Lance's neighborhood during the recent fires, Kassel called.

"Have you found a place to stay?" Kassel asked.

No, Lance said, he hadn't.

"Well you should come stay with me," Kassel said.

And that's how Lance ended up surviving his latest evacuation -- in the spare bedroom of Kassel's newly rebuilt home.

The Cedar fire group has its own rules for judging when someone's finished with "the rebuild."

Only after San Diego County building inspectors issue their final approval does the group celebrate. They even have a term for it: "getting final."

The Kassels are done. Williams is close -- she just needs to plant some landscaping. But Jim Robinson, 66, is another story.

The retired Caltrans surveyor attends all the Cedar fire group meetings, stays for dinner and gathers construction tips.

Robinson stays at his late mother's home in Springdale, and drives over to the site of his burned-out, one-bedroom ranch house in Lakeside twice weekly to water the gardens and clear the slab.

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