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Some Calif. Firefighters Lost Own Homes

November 3, 2003

CUYAMACA, Calif. (AP) _ Volunteer firefighter Carolina Finch was trying to save a convalescent home when she glimpsed the angry orange glow in the sky over her own neighborhood. Rounding the corner, she saw what used to be her two-story redwood house.

As the sun rose the next morning, it became clear that she was not the only firefighter whose home was destroyed.

``Dave lost his. God, Carl lost his,″ she told a fellow firefighter as they raced off to fight the monstrous blaze that roared through San Diego County last week. ``Every single one of us lost our house. Isn’t that something? Damn the luck.″

Seven of eight volunteer firefighters at the Lake Cuyamaca Fire Department and three firefighters at the nearby Julian station lost their homes when flames whipped through the area last Tuesday.

They had been struggling to save their communities _ at one point making a dramatic stand that helped save Julian’s historic downtown _ even as their own homes were reduced to crumbling foundations and ash.

Battalion Chief Carl Schweikert lost his auto repair business and his home. ``We were so busy, we never went after our own,″ Schweikert said.

The Southern California wildfires killed 20 people, destroyed more than 3,400 homes and scorched more than 750,000 acres over the past two weeks before cooler, calmer weather enabled firefighters to gain the upper hand.

Most of the deaths and most of the destroyed homes were in San Diego County, where a 280,000-acre blaze was apparently started by a lost hunter who set a signal fire.

Around this mountain town 40 miles northeast of San Diego, barren trees tower over blackened piles of debris. Bushes look like black toothpicks poked into the scarred earth. Houses have been reduced to scorched squares of land resembling slices of burned toast. Only 25 of 145 homes survived in Cuyamaca.

Last week, fire Capt. George Hatton, 53, was using a chain saw to cut through fallen tree limbs and brush when he and his crew finally reached his own neighborhood Wednesday. He was alone when he came to what remained of his home. The tears flowed.

``I didn’t really think about my house burning down when I’m fighting a fire,″ he said.

Over the weekend, he and his family trudged through the black mess that used to hold years of memories. He and his wife were married here 25 years ago; they buried dogs here.

As he walked, roof shingles disintegrated beneath his feet. The windmill that once turned in their front yard was still intact but had been turned a chalky black. His collection of toy trucks consisted of only the vehicles’ little frames.

``We had decks that went out that way,″ Hatton said, pointing to empty space. ``That’s all back yard over there. The deck was actually our favorite place. It was wonderful.″

His wife, Sue, called to Hatton, excited to find a ceramic bowl their son painted in 1986.

The firefighters here know how strange it sounds for them to have lost their homes. ``It’s like a doctor being sick,″ Finch said.

Firefighter Dave Southcott, 47, always thought he would be able to save his home. After all, that is his job. After the fires swept through, he said, ``We joked about it. We were laughing to cover up what we really wanted to do.″

Southcott said he was more worried about elderly neighbors with no insurance, and happy that he was able to save his best friend’s home.

``A lot of people lost a lot more,″ he said, picking through donated clothing at the firehouse.

Residents and out-of-towners have been dropping off food, clothing and money at the firehouse, where most of the displaced firefighters are living. Neighbors whose homes survived have stopped by to say thanks. A 12-year-old girl drew a picture of a firefighter spraying flames and wrote, ``I’m sorry you lost your homes.″

And Hatton and his wife plan to temporarily move into a travel trailer a New Mexico family brought for firefighters to use until their homes are rebuilt.

``I just can’t complain,″ Hatton said.


EDITOR’S NOTE _ Angie Wagner is the AP’s Western regional writer, based in Las Vegas.

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