California comes to terms with wrecked homes and dreams

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The Independent US

Katherine Johnson has undergone every stage of grief over her mountain home, two hours' drive east of LA.

First came the mourning as she became convinced she had lost everything in the California wildfires – she was a continent away at the time, in New York, which made it that much harder to grasp the fires as a tangible reality. Then came hope that perhaps her house had survived, mingled with the fear that she would be reduced to living in a hellish, burned out landscape denuded of other houses and the lush forest that attracted her to the San Bernardino mountains in the first place.

Towards the end of last week, she caught herself hoping her house was indeed reduced to a charred wreck, because that way she would automatically receive three times its estimated value from her insurance company – far better, in her thinking, than having to assess the damage room by room and haggle over every penny.

Johnson, a healthcare consultant, moved just a few months ago to Running Springs, a modest community on the road up to the Big Bear ski resort.

The town took a big hit in the wildfires of October 2003, and it was the epicentre of one of the most intense fires of the past week, with 300 houses gone in a matter of days.

As Johnson and a group of other Running Springs residents went back to assess the damage over the weekend they had every reason to fear the worst.

Patchy news reports and internet chatrooms suggested the town was a wreck. The post office was gone, said one resident who had stayed. A firefighters' map had the loop where Johnson lives on the western edge of town marked in red, meaning "burned".

Her friend Elsa Helm, a cake decorator who lived through 9/11 in Manhattan, couldn't bear even the thought of seeing the devastation, so she sent her husband Gerald in her place. Another friend, Nancy O'Brien, was worried her entire writing career – her computer, her completed screenplays, the draft of a humorous memoir, and all her back-up disks – was singed to nothing.

As they made their way up the mountain, they fully expected to see the forest still ablaze – news reports had the Slide fire only 15 per cent contained, with more than 1,000 firefighters still battling on the frontlines.

It took considerable haggling with the highway patrol to get up the mountain, since it still wasn't officially reopened to residents.

The reality, though, turned out to be one of those remarkable blessings that can come with the worst calamities. The mountain was still smouldering, but the flames were snuffed out on Thursday, according to local firefighters whose efforts were no longer on battling fire but on securing gas lines, damping down hot spots and repairing the town's fire-damaged sewage system.

One neighbourhood known as Smiley Park was every bit as bad as the reports suggested. Just one lonely house was spared.

The rest of Running Springs, though, attested to the brilliance of the firefighters who defended it tooth and nail. In area after area, trees were scorched to within a few feet of people's houses, but the properties themselves remained undamaged. Many streets lost a house or two, but no more. The post office, and the rest of downtown, was still standing.

The loop where Johnson and Helm live – known to the local hicks as the "fruit loop" because it is home to two gay couples – should indeed have burned to a crisp, as the initial reports suggested, because the Slide fire raced up the hillside on a direct collision course last Tuesday. By good fortune, though, one resident, a computer programmer called Mike, had stayed behind.

He started battling the flames single-handedly with garden hoses, then called in 20 friends who spent four hours fighting to save the neighbourhood. Without Mike – who did not want to be interviewed, for fear of seeming to have pulled one string too many with his friends in the fire department – the "fruit loop" would almost certainly have gone up in smoke.

The returning residents could not have been more relieved. O'Brien recovered her writing materials. The Helms pored joyfully over photographs in their overstuffed living room, full of antique furniture, rare curiosities and cake-making equipment.

Johnson has decided to hold a big Thanksgiving dinner next month to offer up a cosmic thankyou for her saved home. She said: "We're going to be okay – until the next fire, anyway."