A watercolor painting of our old home painted by a neighbor and given to us as a gift and remembrance. To read the Prologue to Chapter One, click here: Any Way the Wind Blows.
We live in a relatively rural part of Southern California on the outskirts of San Diego. Our 99-year-old country home shared a rich heritage in an area of our county where time stood still. Part of the beauty of our valley was that growth had not encroached and the old homes were still that – old homes.
On October 21st and 22nd of 2007, the Witch Fire changed all of that and our house burned to the ground along with six other old, historical homes and buildings in our valley. The loss of these historic homes, the loss of wildlife, as well as the topological changes to our valley, can never be recovered and a physical connection to our county’s bygone past has vanished. Forever.
But, there is more to the story.
The untold story is what a strike team of firefighters, including six engines from Northern California, did for us. With the upstairs of our home fully engulfed in flames, the team arrived on site and firefighters fearlessly entered our home. Noticing that we had an art collection, the team rushed through our house removing art work from our walls, sculptures from display areas, and antique furniture to the safety of our neighbor’s garage next door. What the firefighters didn’t know is that much of the art work was created by my father, who at 83-years-old, no longer paints or sculpts. What the team didn’t know is that many of the antiques are inherited pieces from relatives that are no longer with us and, of course, of great sentimental value to us.
The list of items they saved is extensive:
- A saddle, located by our front door that belonged to my husband’s uncle, who died in 1951 at the age of 81, so the saddle is quite old.
- Multiple paintings created by my father, including a large (6 feet x 4 feet) one hanging by our front door.
- The armoire near the front door (how many men carried that outside?) belonged to my husband’s aunt and she died ten years ago at the age of 94.
- A box full of photo albums including our wedding and honeymoon photos. None of these photos are digital. Even though we’ve been married 23 years, we just never got around to transferring them to digital format.
- A coffee table that opened up like a chest, full of family photos; again, not digitized.
- Boxes containing personal letters.
- Nine out of ten of our dining room chairs.
- I was decorating for Halloween and someone brought out my Madam Zelda talking crystal-head ball – I got a good laugh out of that!
- Decorative glass jars filled with sea shells on my dining room table.
- A cowhide rug.
- A 10-drawer dresser painted blue that belonged to a great-aunt of mine; again, another very heavy item.
- A 4-drawer filing cabinet full of our personal records! It must have taken 3 or 4 men to carry this out of the house!
The list of treasures goes on and on with various knick-knacks from our kitchen, dining room and living room, all now even more precious to us. There isn’t a room in our new house that doesn’t have something in it from our old house.
Outside our home, the firefighters succeeded in saving one of our two antiques wagons from our burning carport as well as our golf cart, our John Deere Gator and our John Deere Tractor and tractor accessories. In addition, they managed to curtail the fire away from one of our storage containers, saving the contents of this unit.
Unfortunately, since our art work collection is quite extensive, I couldn’t take much during our evacuation. Plus many of my father’s pieces are too large, like a glorious red 4’ x 6’ abstract painting, which was located next to our front door. Or too heavy, like his acrylic and resin sculpture that is four feet tall and weighs a ton. Or his nude female figures made from concrete and hydrocal – while not concrete, still a very heavy product – just ask the firefighter that had the pleasure of carrying out those cuties!
Our home had been in my husband’s family since 1947 and was a part of our county’s history and landscape that is now lost forever. My husband, Charlie, and I had lived in our home for our entire married life and Charlie also lived there during part of his childhood. Some of the photos that the firefighters saved included pictures of him in front of the house when he was baby and a young boy.
When we learned that our house did not survive, we never expected to have any of the treasures that we have today. In fact, we didn’t know about them for about 5 days. Every item that was saved by the firefighters has great meaning to us and we are eternally grateful to them. We understand how blessed we are that they responded to our fire, given the magnitude of the situation and the resources that were available.
We are beyond thankful for their fine efforts on our behalf during this crisis in our lives and we are, to this day, overwhelmed. While we lost our home and many “things,” we found love, compassion, kindness, support, encouragement, hope, friendship and many angels in our lives. We have been truly blessed throughout this experience by the kindness of many including this heroic team of firefighters.
Here are a few of the old photos of Charlie and his family outside our old house that the firefighters saved:
Here are a few of the family treasures that the firefighters saved:
Clockwise from top left:
My father’s glorious red painting, now in its place of honor in our new home. In addition to saving this painting, the firefighters saved the nude female concrete sculpture in the lower left on the fireplace hearth. This, too, was created by my father. Also, the firefighters saved the 3 glass jars filled with seashells on top of the cabinet. These jars used to be in the center of our old dining room table.
Armoire saved by firefighters. This belonged to Charlie’s aunt. This picture was taken inside the condo we lived in for 13-months while our new house was being built. Notice Coco on the table to the left?
- The firefighters saved this carriage, now located in the front yard of our new home. This belonged to Charlie’s aunt.
- This is Madame Zelda, my talking head Halloween crystal ball. This is right where we found it, next to our tractor. You can tell by this picture that it is filthy. The firefighters rescued her and put her someplace safe (near the tractor) until we could find her. Since I was decorating for Halloween, she was located on a table near our front door. When I saw her resting on the ground covered in soot, I started laughing – she bought a bit of humor to a very trying day.
- The firefighters saved this 100+ year-old saddle, now in a place of honor in the dining room of our new home. This saddle belonged to Charlie’s uncle, who died in 1951 at the age of 81. In our old house, it was by the front door. In our new house, it is near the front door.
The following pictures of our burning home were taken by firefighters, as they stood helplessly by after exiting our home. It took me five months to find out where these teams of firefighters were from and I wrote them a thank you letter. One contacted me and asked me if I would like these pictures. With great trepidation, I said yes. While disturbing, having these pictures has helped me move on.
Our home, burning in the Witch Fire. Firefighters stand outside watching helplessly surrounded by our personal possessions, which they rescued from our home while it was burning.
This series continues tomorrow with Chapter Two – Eye of the Storm.