Changed by Fire: Thriving After Disaster

Scenes from the Cocos fire. Courtesy NBC 7

Introduction: This blog post is not the normal bits of advice or inspiration about green building, plantscaping, or living walls. After the events of this week in San Diego and an unusually early start to what appears to be a long, hot summer and wildfire season to come, I couldn’t help but think about my own experiences surviving – and even thriving – after a wildfire.

I wrote a lengthy journal entry about my experiences with a wildfire in 2003, when my own home was burned to the ground in the Cedar Fire. While many things were destroyed – including my marriage – new life literally did grow from the ashes, taking me in a direction I never could have imagined. I shared it with a new introduction four years later in October 2007 when wildfires again destroyed hundreds of homes in San Diego County.

On the chance my experience may help someone else through challenging times, I am sharing it again, nearly 11 years after it was originally written, in its original entirety, all 5,000 words of it.

If you have wisdom to add, please do in the comments section. The sad truth is that there are now other people in this situation today, and there will be more before the summer is over. They will be in shock like I was, and will need a lot of advice and support.

Changed By Fire, Jim Mumford

Original introduction, October 2007

While San Diego burns once again, it brings back some difficult memories and reminds me that people we may know are suffering real tragedies. I cannot watch the news or listen to the radio, except in brief spurts to stay somewhat abreast of the current situation. My heart goes out to my employees Debby, as she awaits finding out the fate of her home in rural Jamul, and we already know that our technician Alexa, her grandmother lost her home in San Pasqual on Sunday.

My personal misfortune of losing our home to the Cedar Fire is thankfully becoming a thing of the distant past as we “celebrate” the 4th anniversary of those terrible days. I am grateful  that although the current fires appear to be far greater than four years ago, the loss of life is much less. Losing your home is devastating, but losing your life or a loved one is unrecoverable. Much of what is burned in a fire is merely “stuff” and can be replaced over time.

I was lucky. We were all safe and healthy, my business was intact, I had a home to stay in and insurance was relatively no-hassle. What I created and grew from the ashes of a home and marriage, was my interest in green roofs. I can confidently say if it wasn’t for these life changing events I would have stayed within my level of contentment and not explored something as radical and innovative as growing plants on your roof in an arid climate. I continue to be amazed at the benefits something as simple as a modern day version of a sod roof can accomplish.

As the fire begins to hopefully subside soon, our skies are again smoke free and as life returns to however we each define “normal”, remember that it takes time for those directly impacted by the fire to heal. And some of the most trying times are still ahead in the coming weeks, months and even years. We are all in this together, I urge you to reach out and help support someone in need, if only with kind and reassuring words of empathy.

What follows below is what I wrote about my experience in October of 2003. I have added a little at the end to make it current, but most of it was written immediately after the fire. It is still painful for me to read, but somehow has lost its significance in my mind as the current crises adds more survivors and their new stories.

Our family's Muth Valley home in 1998

The Mumford family’s Muth Valley home in 1998

Changed by Fire

October 25 is my birthday. That day in 2003 was hot and dry with gusting winds. Our large hilltop home had extra thick insulation, ceiling fans and great cross ventilation, which kept the house cool almost all of the time. We had designed it to maximize the shape and form of the land and it was sustainable before its time.

On this rare day, we had the house shut up and the air conditioner on. The weather condition is known as a Santa Ana. Hot desert winds blow from the northeast. Normally Mary, my wife, and I throw a big costume party on this weekend to celebrate my birthday. People usually spend the night or stay up at the Barona Indian Casino and Resort Hotel a few miles to the northeast. This time however, we decided earlier in the month that too much was going on at work and that we would have to skip the party this year. The kids went off to their grandmother Bessie’s house, and we enjoyed a relaxing Saturday evening to ourselves.

Even though all the windows were closed in the house, the smell of smoke first awakened me at midnight. I poked Mary and asked if she smelled the smoke as well, which she confirmed. Alarming as it was, after looking in all directions from our second floor bedroom windows and not seeing anything, we went back to bed. Our belief was that the Camp Pendleton fires 20 miles away to the northwest were sending smoke our way.

Had the house not been closed-up or I initially opened the balcony door, I’m sure the smell of smoke would have been so strong we couldn’t have ignored it. An hour later we awoke again still smelling smoke in the house and this time the faintest of a red glow on the northeast horizon could be seen. It was so small and seemed so far away that we didn’t feel threatened. Had it been light I would have been able to see that what I thought were clouds overhead was really a giant black column of smoke blowing low over the house, coming from the direction of the unseen fire. So thick and black that it blocked out the stars. As I later opened the door in the dark, I felt the Santa Ana winds in my face. It was blowing towards me carrying the strong and pungent odor of fire and smoke.

Unknown at the time, the fire was headed our way. I found out later that a neighbor had called 911 at 1 a.m. but was assured by the fire department that the fire was miles away, on the other side of Ramona 10 miles away and we were completely safe.

Our very real nightmare began with a rude awakening at 2 a.m. by our neighbors banging on the front door yelling about the approaching fire. This time when I looked out our second story bedroom window I could instantly see that the fire was close upon us, the entire sky towards the northeast was glowing an angry red. Huge flames could be seen raging not far away in the dark, fed by the hot wind.

Adrenaline cranking through my system, I raced downstairs to my office with Mary right behind me. As she brought me a drink of water and my shoes, she somewhat casually began gathering a few things. The adrenaline was so intense that I couldn’t tie my shoes with shaky hands.

Regardless of the situation, we weren’t overly worried, as we felt confident that we’d be back and didn’t want the hassle of hauling stuff out and then having to put it away again. We had already had a couple of close fires over the last few fire seasons and had confidence that this one would be stopped as had happened in the past.

I got on the phone to call neighbors up and down the valley to alert them of the danger upon us. Running east to west, Muth Valley is a little more than a mile across and about two miles long. About 40 isolated homes are scattered either along the edge of the valley or tucked into the hills and canyons to the north and west. At the far west end, down the hill towards San Vincente Lake lie another dozen homes in the Lake View Estates. Accessed by winding, narrow roads, there is only one-way in or out for all of us, on our left, to the east connecting with Wildcat Canyon Road. However, we have a key to the Lambron Ranch gate, just outside of the Estates. A dirt road leads down to Moreno Valley and could be used to escape in an emergency. I was always confident that this was an easy savior and my way out if it ever came to that.

Our 5,000 square foot home was on top of a little knoll that jutted out into the valley from the north and offered a commanding southern facing view of the road as it entered on the left, and to the right as it disappeared over the hill to Lake View Estates. Built from stucco with a tile roof, we purposely designed it to wrap around huge boulders and follow the topography of the land. It was tucked into the top of the hill for protection, with fewer and smaller windows facing the Northeast, we felt safe. Over the summer, we spent $4,000 on a project that cleared brush to provide a more defensible space. Our home was fire safe and I pledged more than once I would go down fighting and not allow it to burn.

I was only able to make a few phone calls (Mark Hansen reminds me regularly I got only as far as “H” in my phone list) before the flashing lights of a sheriff’s car were in our driveway ordering us to evacuate immediately. I sent Mary out to leave in her car, which was parked out front. We loaded our laptops into her car. Mary had some un-important pictures and a civil war record of my ancestor.

Wearing hiking boots and shorts, hat and a t-shirt, I headed to the garage for my gloves, jeans and a long sleeved shirt and grabbed a shovel. As the garage door went up and I walked outside intending to defend my home, the enormity of what I faced was immediate. A few hundred feet away the flames of the firestorm were 50+ feet high and bearing down on me fast. I really didn’t hesitate in my decision to abandon the fight. But where are my keys? Back into the house I went. No sign of them anywhere. On the verge of panic, I raced back outside and realized they were in my pocket the whole time. I had already picked up the keys to the ranch gate and thought they were the only keys in my pocket.

After one of the smartest and fastest decisions in my life, I threw the shovel into the back of the truck and screamed some choice swear words at the fire, ordering it to leave my house alone. By the time I was driving away, embers were blowing by. Down the quarter mile dirt drive I went, the fire now crossing the hill in front of me, another couple of minutes and my access to the main road would be cut off. I hit the road and turned right, to the west, determined to unlock the ranch gate and give any stragglers another way out. Up ahead, the fire department had set up a staging area in a clearing. I pulled over to let them know I had access to a dirt road at the far west end that could be used in an emergency. I also explained that with my knowledge of the roads and driveways, where people lived and how to find them, I could help get everyone out. And of course, in case there were a choice, direct them to which house should be saved first!

The Mumford home before the October 2003 Cedar Fire

The Mumford home before the October 2003 Cedar Fire

I was stunned when the response was “The valley is indefensible, we’re evacuating ourselves, you must leave now.” As I reluctantly pulled away, they were right behind. The fire was now starting to jump the main road. I was glad that the fire trucks were following me, as it was a frightening scene. I swore at the fire again, driving out of the valley as I knew it for the last time. I had easily grown to love our little corner of paradise. It had not burned in over 40 years and was lush and green with mature vegetation. Approaching the intersection of Wildcat Canyon Road, the fire was on the left and straight ahead, blowing hard to the right. Turning right I drove down hill towards the safety of Lakeside. When I was able to talk with survivors over the next few days, I learned that only a couple of people that left after the firemen and me escaped unharmed.

I first reached the Circle K convenience store in Lakeside and pulled in, people and vehicles were everywhere. I searched for anyone I knew, anxious for news of who gotten out and what they knew. As I turned around to watch, the fire had reached the ridgeline of the hills above me, meaning that the fire had already crossed Muth valley and over the hills on the far side from our house. It had moved miles in minutes. From a safe distance it was a strange and beautiful sight. The hillside was pitch black, but here and there you could see a flying ember hit the ground and like a pebble hitting water, a ring of fire expanded away from the center. Eventually so many fire rings that they joined together.

Thank god for cell phones, as I was able to locate Mary at the Burger King a little farther into town. Joining her there, the parking lot was nearly full of evacuees milling around, others sitting in their cars and trucks. I found Mary and jumped into her car. I couldn’t tell you what we said. It was only about 2:45 a.m.. We were facing north and from our vantage point the fire was visible along the entire ridgeline from as far to the left and as far to the right as we could see. It was coming down the mountain in front of us, endangering the homes and ranches in Moreno Valley. I was so full of energy and couldn’t sit still so I got out to see if there was anyone in the parking lot I knew. I found neighbor Jim Shaw and his wife Gina and son Jake.

Jim was in the front of his truck, face in his hands, sobbing. He is a large man who drives heavy equipment for a living. It was unnerving to see him so distraught. I asked how he was doing and was even more surprised when he got up and hugged me. “We pulled burned people from their cars, a badly hurt little girl was on fire and we had to roll her to put it out. There’s at least one death and my buddy is missing from Wildcat Canyon. We didn’t have any time to get everyone. I don’t know where he is.” The words hit hard. Someone had died. I hadn’t counted on that news. However, I was slightly relieved that he had been camping farther up Wildcat Canyon, a few miles to the north of Barona and as far as we knew this was not the case in Muth Valley. We eventually learned that six people had died on the reservation,  unable to escape.

I went back to Mary and told her the news. We turned on the radio to local talk shows but they were previously recorded and there was no news of the inferno in front of us. I kept getting in and out of her car, wanting to sit with her, too hyped up to sit still. I could see a lot of action over at the rodeo grounds so I headed over to see what was going on there. Walking up I ran into Tammy, mom of one of my son Teddy’s fellow Cub Scouts. She said her son (another Jake) was fine and that John her husband was back at their ranch in Moreno Valley evacuating horses and making fire breaks with a tractor. This explained why the fire had stopped when it reached the bottom of the hill and did not burn into the houses.

Jake’s mom was busy trying to keep track of where all her horses were going. As we walked along, I realized that people were driving up to the rodeo grounds entrance and unloading horses into the street so they could quickly drive off and go back for more horses. Seemed like a good thing to help with so I started unloading wild eyed, terrified horses and then calmly as possible walked them onto the grounds and found a place to tie them up. I must have done this for well over an hour, maybe up to two. Horses kept coming and coming until there was not an inch of space to tie up another. Every corral was full; every pole had a horse tied to it. I went back to find Mary.

After unloading horses, I headed for the Burger King. When I got to Mary, it was still dark. Her brother Greg had arrived and joined us in her car. We watched in amazement as fireballs 100 feet high violently rolled across the north end of Moreno Valley, jumping Highway 67 and burning west into Eucalyptus Hills. In the other direction, at the base of Wildcat Canyon, it was like watching a fireplace, except that the dancing and flickering flames were 50 and 100 feet high. It was only about 5 a.m. and still dark, so the orange glow of fire against the dark sky was quite dramatic.

The air was full of smoke so we had the windows rolled up. For me, it was unbearably hot and stuffy. So once again I was in and out of the car. I went across the street to the 7/11 looking for other neighbors but struck out. I found Jim Shaw, and this time he was much calmer. He didn’t know the status of his house but had found his buddy, who was thankfully OK. But the news from Muth Valley was not good. Someone who had somehow miraculously come down from Barona through Wildcat Canyon brought news that everything was burned and people were dead both on the reservation and in Muth Valley. I’m not sure I believed him.

There were employees in the Burger King but it was still closed and wouldn’t open until 6 a.m. I went over and banged on the door until a manager came to talk with me. She insisted that nothing was ready and it wasn’t time to open yet. I pointed out that their parking lot was full of people who needed a place to sit, go to the bathroom and breathe healthy air. I convinced her that it was the right thing to do and she could be a hero by just opening the damn doors 20 minutes early. She got it, and let people in. Coffee was served immediately.

When I got back in the car with Mary and Greg, they told me that they had heard on the news that a family had died in their car in the Lake View Estates and another had perished trying to escape the Estates. These were undoubtedly people I knew. These were the people I was going to unlock the gate for. My mind raced trying to think of who it could be and could I have helped if the gate was unlocked. The tragedy was profound and way too close for comfort. Fighting back tears I went to the rodeo grounds to busy myself unloading horses again. It didn’t help. Back to Mary I went. By now it was close to 7 a.m. but I had no idea what time it was due to the fact it was still pitch black. It was then that I looked towards the south and saw a sliver of blue sky and realized that the sun had been up for awhile. It was almost completely blocked by smoke.

We continued to watch the fire from inside Mary’s car and listened to the news on the radio. Finally live DJs had showed up at the studios and were reporting on the fire. It was burning in several directions, becoming unbelievably huge. News came in that it had jumped the Route 52 freeway and was burning into Santee, soon to endanger Tierrasanta and Scripps Ranch. Goign east and north it was headed to Ramona, Poway and Rancho Bernardo. On the east it had crossed Interstate 8 and was burning towards Alpine, Harbison Canyon and Crest. We sat there in disbelief as it also jumped Interstate 15 and then Interstate 805. All of San Diego it seemed was about to burn.

At 7 a.m., our next-door neighbor and cousin Gina called from Minneapolis, in between flights home from New Hampshire. She was frantic. Her and husband Art’s kids, Michael and Lizzy had not gone with them and were safe staying in town at their friend Donna’s house. But another friend called about the fire, not knowing Gina and Art were out of town, alerting Gina. Mary told her that everything was “OK” to which Gina replied, “No, it’s not OK,” and hung up to call our neighbors Debby and Ted Piorkowski. About 15 minutes later she called back to say that she had found Debby at her father in law’s home, and that Ted was trapped and still in Muth Valley.

The Piorkowskis live diagonally behind us about 300 yards to the northeast. Ted had immediately evacuated Debby with the kids, Kayla and Ben, while he ran back into the house to save the pets. By the time he came back out to flee in his car, the fire was already over-running his driveway and the road between us, his only way out. He made a hasty decision and jumped into his swimming pool. This can sometimes be a fatal act as the fire sucks all the oxygen from the air or super heat the gasses and cause you to die while submerged in water.

With a lucky lawn chair held above his head for protection, he watched as the firestorm blew over and past him, down through the valley. As it passed, he got out of the pool to throw water on the corner of his house, saving it from ruin. With the intensity of the heat enough to drive him back into the pool, he continued to have a bird’s eye view of the ongoing devastation. He didn’t stay in the pool too long as he soon left again to put out a fire in a wall of the Irwins’ home. Somehow, without eyebrows, (singed off by the fire) Ted had survived, and was now accomplishing heroic feats driving around saving homes from the fire. We give him credit for directly saving four homes.

He gave Debby a list of the houses still standing. Debby gave Gina the list. When Gina called Mary, she started nervously rambling on about what Ted had been up to, putting out fires, and then, sobbing, she told Mary that our house was gone. Mary asked for clarification, and Gina recited the list of remaining houses. Gina’s house was on the list, the Martins’ house was on it too. The Irwins’ home and Lamberts’ were listed. Not the Hansons, next door neighbors Skip and Anna, or Jimmy Hurst directly behind us. We were not on the list. Something must be wrong. I pulled the phone from Mary and demanded details. Gina knew little, but knew our home was not on the list of “still standing.”

I then called Debby myself, hoping that somehow Gina was mistaken. When I reached Debby she was apologetic, like somehow she was responsible. But she was firm. I was not on Ted’s list of remaining homes. No, she did not have any further details. No, she didn’t know a clearer definition of what “still standing” meant, and she couldn’t reach Ted. I quickly regained my focus with worry over Ted’s well being. I could hear the stress in Debby’s voice and didn’t want her to feel my pain, when it was not clear how Ted was going to get out.

Mary had already gotten back into the car with Greg. Crying and in shock, the first thing out of Greg’s mouth made her laugh. “What about the poor parakeets?” he asked. Never had Greg expressed any interest in our birds and of all the things to make a comment about, it seemed the most unlikely. I don’t know if this were meant to calm her, or was just a nervous reaction, but it made the moment a little easier. I tried to call my folks. All I could get out was “big fire, all gone.” I’m sure even that was barely audible. Mary got out of the car and came over to me. Both of us overwhelmed, we exchanged some insignificant conversation that neither of us can remember. A quick hug and then all is a blur.

Shocked and stunned, angry and disbelieving, I went back to the rodeo grounds but this time things were settling down and I was unneeded. The air was becoming thicker with smoke so I was looking for a surgical mask when I stumbled in the back door of the command post the San Diego Sheriff department had set up in one of the buildings. I tried to get close enough to find out what was going on, but was discovered as an infiltrator and told to leave.

Sheriff’s deputies, police, firemen, California Highway Patrol, rescue workers and animal control officers were all coming and going so it was easy to hang around outside. I was desperate to find out any news of Muth Valley and more desperate to see it for myself. I approached some deputies and tried to get them to take me with them, but was turned down. I tried again with animal control folks, lying to them about our un-evacuated pets, but was turned down again. The closest I got to a ride was when I told a Sheriff’s supervisor of Ted’s having been stuck and wanting to get out. He was almost going to take me, but at the last moment he made me show him on a map where the Piorkowski home was. Damn.

About this time I noticed a reporter poking around, so I figured he might get past the blockades and would take me with him. “Hey, what’s the best story you’ve got so far?” I asked him. He replied with something unimpressive, so I told him about Ted surviving the firestorm in his pool, saving several homes and watching my house burn. This caught his attention so he asked me more questions. When he was done, I suggested he find us a way in and I would show him around. “No can do” was his response. “I can’t get in there myself, thanks for the story but you’re on your own.” Rats. The reporter worked for the Associated Press, so our story was front page news across the country. It made it into the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times that day and later, articles mentioning us were in the Reader’s Digest and Esquire Magazine.

Antsy, I went for my truck. It was close to noon, the sky dark with black smoke above and yellow haze all around. Fire was still visible in the distance. Ashes were falling like snow. I didn’t know where I was going. All I knew was that I had to see what was left of our home. All the roads were blocked, all the ridgelines still smoldering. I headed east towards El Monte Valley, where I could perhaps sneak back in. Unfortunately the fire had burned through El Monte and was going over the hill into Blossom Valley. I whipped a u-turn and headed back to Lakeside. When I approached Ashwood Road, which is at the far side of the rodeo grounds from the Burger King, I decided to tempt my fate and turned right towards the deputies blocking the road. I stopped and got out of my truck and walked up to the officers and told them I was rescuing horses from Moreno Valley and needed to get back in. Covered with dirt, ash and horse snot, I’m sure I looked the part. Surprisingly, they let me through! I raced towards Wildcat Canyon Road but was turned away by another Sheriff. Turning left onto Willow Road, I headed to Moreno Valley.

As I turned north, up into Moreno Valley, I was surprised in the beginning that it was not more devastated. John’s work on the tractor making firebreaks had paid off big time. Unfortunately, the farther I went, the closer to the right side of the road the evidence of fire was visible. Soon I was passing burned homes and crossing over downed power lines. As I approached the radio towers which indicate where the ranch road comes down into Moreno Valley, I could see that the fire had blown through with a such a ferocity that the remnants of burnt trees and bushes bent to the left. This was where we had been able to see the 100 foot high fireballs roll across the valley as the fire jumped Route 67.

I came to the gate and parked. Half of a telephone pole was still burning next to the gate and I wanted to make sure the power lines weren’t dangerous. I opened the gate and drove inside delighted that I had gotten this far. Quickly I realized that without four-wheel drive I wasn’t going too much further. I called Greg, told him about my scheme and waited for his arrival.

Looking around, looking up the mountain, everything was monochromatic black and gray, everything scorched and burned. The smell was overpowering. Small fires continued to burn and smolder here and there. One of the radio towers had collapsed. Where once was a narrow dirt road, I was surprised at how wide it was without the encroachment of scrub brush on either side. Where once it was thick with native vegetation, it lay bare. A grove of sycamores were left partially standing, a fallen branch was still burning. All of the underbrush was gone. Old rusty refrigerators, wrecked cars and other metal trash that had lain hidden under years of growth, all lay exposed. Off in the distance, the remains of foundations still smoldered where once a home stood. The eerie view in every direction reminded me of a war zone or a moonscape, void of all life and color.

Greg arrived and I climbed into his Suburban. We started up the road, passing the torched bodies of bunnies having been overcome by fire as they tried to escape. Their charred corpses lay frozen as they ran. Up the mountain we went, carefully, as the road was deeply rutted. Everything on either side, or as far as we could see was completely and totally burned. The heat had been so intense that boulders were cracked and flaked. Towards the top, the road had several switchbacks that further slowed our progress. Somehow, even though I had traveled this dirt road several times, I had envisioned a straighter road, one that was a more direct escape route. This was what I would have been racing down, fire behind me. I could have ended up like the bunnies. The going up was tediously slow.

Small fires still smoldered and smoked on either side of the road the entire way. When we finally crested the hill, the view of Muth Valley was still more burned land. The beautiful oaks that had provided shade for hundreds of years and countless Lambron picnics were mostly gone. Some were completely burned, others scorched but holding on to browned leaves. The big tool shed was gone as were the outhouse and storage shed. Nothing left but a pool of aluminum and the indication of where the buildings once stood. The picnic tables were totally burned, but some of the serving tables were unscathed. Crispy bunnies lay everywhere. We moved on.

As we approached the entry/exit to the ranch, the new gate was still locked and looked good. Scattered around were the burnt remnants of the tools they were using to recently build the gate. We went through and turned east towards our house. About a hundred yards up on the right was the smoking remains of an RV with yellow police tape surrounding it. It was a creepy sight for we knew exactly what it meant. This was what was left of Steve Shacklett.

Steve had been the second in a convoy of six cars trying to escape Lake Valley Estates. His girlfriend Natalie had gone first, ran into a downed power line and flipped her truck, but somehow survived in it. Steve was right behind her but his tires melted and he perished in his RV with his dogs when the gas tank blew up. Behind him were the Bloomfields in two cars, the Shaliegs behind them and the Dalys bringing up the rear. Everyone on a very narrow road made a frantic U-turn. The Bloomfields went to their home in two cars and all four of them jumped into Renie and Larry’s pool, saving themselves and ultimately their house. The Dalys drove down the mountain and turned into their home and jumped into their pool. They watched helplessly from their pool as their home and all of its 50 years of memories burned to the foundation. At one point the intensity of the fire was so hot that they exited the pool and stood exposed in an area where the fire had already burned through.

Despite a warning from Bob Daly, the three Shaliegs made a frantic dash for the lake at the bottom of the hill. The road down was narrow and extremely steep. I can only imagine the terror that drove them to seek this avenue of escape. They didn’t make it, the parents dying in the car while the son made a last desperate run to the lake, several hundred yards away. His body was found lying in the road well short of the lake.

Passing the burned out wreck of Steve’s RV, I was struck by the thought that if had I tried to open the ranch gate as planned, I would be here, trapped behind the line of fire blocking the road. I wouldn’t have been able to get back out through Muth Valley. I probably would have tried to get out down the dirt road, the same one we had slowly come up. I would not have made it. The fire was too fast. I would have joined the bunnies in their hopeless run. It wasn’t until much later that I fully understood the impact of what this meant. By stopping to tell the firemen about the gate key, by listening to them telling me to abandon the valley, my life was probably spared.

As we crested the small hill over looking the rest of Muth Valley, a view from which normally we could see our house, I knew it was a bad sign when it was not there in the distance. Driving on we passed the flipped Bronco that Natalie had survived in, and then one, two, and three houses burned to the ground. We turned up the little road that lead to our house, normally framed with the branches of giant oak trees now gone, and again passed three more missing homes. I was not looking forward to what I was going to find.

The remains of the Mumford home after the Cedar Fire.

The remains of the Mumford home after the Cedar Fire.

Arriving at what was left of our house, the scene was amazing. Nothing was left of the two-story house but a few walls and four-foot pile of debris, some of which was still smoldering. I poked around a little, finding nothing, and quickly declared it a total loss. The back deck was still on fire as were the railroad ties we had used around the vegetable garden. The oil in the railroad ties burned for two weeks. Like a flamethrower, a jet of propane was burning where our garage once stood. I managed to turn off the gas and put it out.

I looked around and saw that every single tree, bush and shrub that I had planted over the past five years were gone. An orchard of citrus trees, nut trees and stone fruit, pine trees, pepper trees, sycamores and willows. All my palms and tropical plant collection, and all the cactus and succulents I had collected for over 20 years. Everything was black and burned as far as we could see. Ironically, of the 60 utility poles in the valley, all but four burned. The four left standing were on our property.

I found out from Ted Piorkowski that after he watched as the firestorm blew through the valley, in about an hour the smoke and fire cleared and he could see our house still standing. He cheered as it provided inspiration. But while he watched, the intense back draft created a mini tornado. Gathering burning embers, it blew back into our house, into the weak side. As embers piled up against the exposed wooden eaves the wind fanned the flames. Our lovely home, our source of strength and grounding, lit up like a torch. Helpless, Ted shot a few blurry pictures I have. It was all over very quickly.

Because there was nothing we could do and I was exhausted, we didn’t hang around long and soon were following my escape route, headed down Muth Valley Road to Wildcat Canyon. On the way we passed three more burned out cars reminding me of the Iraqis’ mad dash out of Kuwait. Amazingly, as we drove down Wildcat, the SDG&E crews were already working their way up the canyon replacing burned utility poles. When we reached the bottom I called Mary to tell her what I found. She was busy shopping for clothes for the kids with her sister Nancy. “What do you need?” she asked me, to which I replied somewhat indignantly: “nothing.” I had not yet fully realized that I had nothing.

We landed at Bessie’s home, Mary’s mom, the same place we lived while building the house six years before. It was a safe place to regroup, comfortable, warm and loving. The entire family gathered that night for dinner in full support for our time of need. I slept that night in my clothes, not for any particular reason other than it felt right. At 3 a.m. I awoke, sat straight up in bed and thankfully I couldn’t smell smoke. Mary and I both tossed and turned through the night. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a bad dream.

On Monday morning, I went to work trying to retain some sense of normalcy. While there I called a debris removal firm to order the biggest dumpster they had. I needed it to remove the junk in our way of building a new home. We designed and built it once, we could do it again! All we lost was stuff, mostly things that could be replaced. Our perspective was focused as we grieved for our lost neighbors. I could not watch the news as the fire raged for days eventually burning 2,323 homes and killed 12 people.

I didn’t last long at work. I think I felt it was important for my employees to momentarily share in my grief, but it wouldn’t be a productive day no matter how you looked at it. The sky was a creepy color of yellow and the authorities were urging people to stay home. I had some clothes at the office that I retrieved so that I had something of mine to wear. Mary had nothing. She left home in flip-flops and shorts. Along with her purse it was all of the worldly possessions she owned. Later as we began the process of sifting through the pile of debris an odd feeling of not wanting to dirty my new clothes reminded me that I had no old and grubby ones. In reality there was nothing to find in the remains of any value. The heat had been too intense.

The next day Mary, cousin Art and I piled into Greg’s SUV and went back so Mary could see for herself what remained of our dream home. I took some ugly pictures, one showing the grief that hid under Mary’s facial features. She and I were trying desperately to put on a good face while inwardly being in shock. We broke the news to Teddy and Allie slowly and matter of factly. When we got home I showed them the tiny images on my digital camera. They knew we built the house and we immediately made them a part of the re-creation and design process. Teddy’s desire to have trap doors, hidden rooms and swinging vines would be a challenge. When they finally got out to see the wreckage for themselves we made it an adventure – a treasure hunt to see what we could find.

Friends and neighbors rallied. Organizations that I belong to began contributing money and goods for our welfare. It’s a disconcerting feeling packing boxes of donated goods into our car instead of unloading them. We are people that give away things so that others may live better. The reality that we really needed this stuff was hard. Thankfully most of the boxes were for the kids and it helped them in the loss they suffered. Whenever I saw Mary in a new outfit I teased her by asking “oh, is that new?”

By January, we had moved to the unoccupied La Jolla home of my folks. They had just bought it to retire in but weren’t able to move in until June. It was amazing to own practically nothing and be quite comfortable. An unwanted but seemingly welcome purge. Sadly, this was the time that Mary decided that the task of rebuilding her life would be better without me in it. She explained that she hadn’t been happy for years and unfortunately never been able to speak or deal with it. I wish she had allowed the trauma of the fire to subside some before making such a life changing decision, but she was determined to go it alone.

I ended up renting the house next door to my mom and dad and now have more stuff than I ever thought I wanted again. I’m amazed at what accumulates over a short period. I’ve reluctantly made a new life for myself, enjoying it more and more everyday. I’ve always thought that “it’s not what happens to you in life –it’s how you deal with it.” And “that, that does not kill you, will make you stronger.”  I’m one strong son of a bitch now. The kids seem to have adjusted well to the double whammy life dealt us and I love the new relationship I have with them.

Three years have now passed. I never got the therapeutic value of re-building my home. Others have been luckier. Next door neighbors Skip and Anna built an exact replica and sold it immediately to leave the area. Jimmy Hurst built a nicer home without any insurance money. Mark Hansen built a better version of his original home. Several others have been built for people whose names I have forgotten. Mary put up a small two bedroom modular home and vows to someday rebuild. I don’t go out anymore, there’s nothing in Muth Valley for me.

Many times I have asked myself, “What if I had stayed, saved my home and lived, how would my life be different?”