4 years after fire, town shows its resilience

ALPINE, Calif. — The last time President Bush walked the charred ruins of a Southern California home, two sewing machines and an air conditioner were the only recognizable objects amid the debris.

He tripped over one of Frank Peters’ swords as he made his way through the ashes.

On Thursday, while Bush toured the latest fire devastation in San Diego County, an hour away from that scene, Peters stood in front of his handsome new two-story house.

The president, Peters recalled, had told him on Nov. 4, 2003: “I hope you can bounce back from where you are to where you’re going to be.”

“I bounced ahead,” Peters said. “It took over 30 years to get what I had. It took me two years to get where we are.”

So it goes throughout Harbison Canyon, a hamlet in the rugged hills 45 minutes northeast of downtown San Diego.

Fire destroyed more than 200 homes here four years ago, but new ones sprang up in their place, and the building boom continues.

Scaffolding shrouds dozens of homes in the canyon, and luxury houses rise in a new development above. The development will afford views of the 2003 fire’s scars, like the still-vacant dirt lot between Peters’ new house and his neighbor’s.

Those who rebuilt dismissed questions about whether it was wise to do so, even as ash floated down from a nearby fire. The blaze is one of several in San Diego County, which accounts for the majority of the nearly 1,800 homes destroyed across Southern California this week.

“I don’t think anybody has a choice,” said Richard Brehl, who bought a prefabricated house after the 2003 fire demolished the old one. “People have a foot in the ground; they own the property.”

Jason Daley, who has lived here his whole life, said the lifestyle outweighs the risks.

“Harbison Canyon is just a different way of life than in San Diego,” Daley said. “Nobody cares what kind of car you drive, what clothes you wear.”

Those who stayed after the 2003 fires built the painful lessons they learned into their new homes.

“It looks like wood, but it’s concrete,” Brehl said, tapping an exterior wall of his house. “It won’t burn.”

Peters’ house, like most of the new ones, is built of fire-resistant stucco. His roof is made of cement, with metal underneath. There are sprinklers throughout his house, even in closets. His security system includes a panic button that reaches the fire department.

The 2003 fires hardened a determination among many here to refuse evacuation orders — an attitude that has vexed authorities throughout the region this week.

“The ones that left last time are the ones that lost their homes,” Ty Cottrell said. “The only reason mine was saved was because I snuck back in.”

Two fires swept into Harbison Canyon that October, heading directly for homes. Cottrell returned at 11:30 p.m., just in time to beat back the fire.

“Flames burned all my fences, my trees, but it stopped at my front door,” he said Thursday, standing next to a burned-out oak tree.

This week, when officials issued evacuation orders, “we all kind of laughed,” Daley said. Four years ago, his family stayed and fought the fire.

A sense that the world had forgotten Harbison Canyon in 2003 helped to fuel its residents’ determination to stay this time around.

There was no help from firefighters before the blazes devoured homes, Cottrell and Daley recalled. No help from the utility companies in reconnecting them to the grid. No news media spotlighting the remote community’s plight.

All of which made Bush’s visit so welcome.

With an arm around Peters’ shoulder, Bush told residents that he grieved for families “crushed by the material loss.” He also praised their resiliency.

“One hundred percent right on both counts,” said Daley, who said the president had pulled his sister in close for a cheek-to-cheek hug.

“He really did a lot for morale,” Daley said. “People were real beat up here, and it let them know that help was on the way, that they were going to do whatever it took to help them rebuild.”

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