By her own admission, Nissa Jackson is an emotional person. Yet though she wept when she first saw the burning mound of rubble that was once her home, she chose humor as she poked around the sooty gunk covering what used to be the floor of her bedroom.
She giggled as she pointed out how a skull on a charred Halloween decoration looks much scarier now. And she apologized for the condition of her room.
Last Friday, Jackson, 29, and her friend Debbie, both wearing dust masks, were on hands and knees, hunting in the mess for anything that might have survived. It was a surreal scene that was playing out simultaneously all around Jackson's home village of Harbison Canyon-people pushing around piles that used to be houses.
"I'm out here digging because they're going to have it tractored soon and have everything just dragged off the slab," Jackson said. "If there's anything out there, I want to find it first.
"It's depressing, but we're trying to keep a sense of humor. At this point, there's so much devastation around that we're all trying to just...." She trailed off. "I mean, I'm salvaging what I can, and I'm sad that it's lost, but I'm happy that I'm trying. There's no point in walking around sulking about this because three-quarters of the people we know are in the same situation."
Before Sunday, Oct. 26, there were nearly 500 homes in Harbison Canyon. By last Saturday, community organizers had confirmed that at least 217 of them were destroyed by the marauding Cedar fire. Residents fear that more than half, maybe even two-thirds, of the canyon village was vanquished-including the Emmanuel Christian chapel, several businesses, the volunteer fire department's station and the Canyon Inn, a restaurant and bar that one resident called Harbison Canyon's "spiritual center."
The Canyon Inn played so important a role in the community that, after the fire blew through, leaders began holding community meetings behind its burnt remains. The regular meetings, during which community leaders update victims about the status of utility recovery, share offers of assistance and dispense advice, have since been moved to the community center, which previously was little more than a couple of small buildings and a park.
But now the center is a vital lifeline, bustling with activity and community charity. It's where the Red Cross set up shop for a few days, making sure everyone had food, arrangements for shelter and access to medical and emotional care. It's where donations of everything imaginable poured in and were heaped in great piles. It's where a gazebo has been transformed into a small grocery store offering free food. It's where volunteer plumbers were busily hooking up a bank of washers and dryers. It's where picnic-style meals are being provided daily.
As he fielded questions and directed volunteers on Sunday, Rick Orozco-a Harbison Canyon resident for only three months who quickly offered to be one of the organizers of the recovery effort-smiled as he said the first week after the fire was guided by psychologist Abraham Maslow's "hierarchy of needs."
"Do you have oxygen? Yes, OK, we're good there. Water? OK. And then working right up the food chain," he said.
Harbison Canyon, about five miles outside of Alpine, was, and still is, a rural, working-class neighborhood whose residents jokingly call a "funky hippie community." It's an aging village one might refer to as "country." It's a changed community now, thanks to the Cedar fire.
Nissa Jackson awoke Oct. 26, as did most of San Diego County, to a morning sky filled with smoke and swirling ashes. And like almost everyone else, she turned on her television and found out that fire was consuming hundreds of houses in Scripps Ranch. At about noon, she learned that a finger of that same fire had reached Interstate 8 and was charging toward Harbison Canyon, just to the south. She was told she had about a half an hour to pack a few things and get out through the canyon's backside.
"We didn't see anything on the news about us," she said. "That's why people are pretty upset about no press coverage. A lot of people didn't know that they had to evacuate until it was time."
Jackson, who lived in the house with her mother and stepfather, gathered her cat, photo albums, some clothing, a few pieces of jewelry that had sentimental value and books that were gifts from friends and evacuated with a neighbor. Her mom and stepdad left separately. The plan was to meet in the parking lot of her stepfather's El Cajon business.
"I was in denial," she said. " I wasn't really frantic, I was just kind of looking around my room and going, OK, what can I absolutely not live without? The first thing that I should have picked up would have been my computer-I'm a computer junkie.
"I picked up my computer tower-I had just rebuilt it last week... I had it right there. Then I went, No, no, that's selfish. That's a big thing. You don't need your computer. Your house is not really going to burn down. So I left it, with just about everything else."
Evacuation was smooth and orderly, according to Jackson and other residents. But for her family and friends, things went "haywire"-some didn't get to the appointed meeting place for hours. It was getting late, perhaps around 8 p.m., and her mom hadn't arrived, so a family friend violated the roadblocks and went back to Harbison Canyon. He found the village largely in ruins, but Jackson's house was still standing. Her mom, who had since arrived in El Cajon, tried to get back into the canyon, but was stopped. The family spent the night in that El Cajon parking lot, frustrated about not being allowed to go home but thankful that their house had been spared.
On Monday, Oct. 27, in the late afternoon, authorities allowed residents back in. Someone stopped Jackson at the Canyon Inn and told her that her house was gone. Somehow, a remnant fire had gotten to it in the night. When she saw it, its remains were still flaming. Her stepfather and a neighbor grabbed a hose from across the street and attacked the hotspots.
As she told the story, Jackson appeared to be trying to muster up anger about how residents weren't allowed back in-the family might have been able to save their house, where Jackson and her mother had lived for nearly 19 years and her stepfather for 30. But the anger had either subsided or wasn't accessible at that moment.
"Their job is to protect our lives, not necessarily our homes-our lives come first," she acknowledged. "But we know that our house was still standing, and there were neighbors who were back in."
Firefighters never made it into Harbison Canyon until after it was ravaged. There just weren't enough of them to go around. Eventually, thousands of firefighters flooded San Diego County, but Harbison Canyon was one of the unfortunate early victims.
Ironically, Jackson's house was one of the few that had a fire hydrant right out front. Someone had dropped a heavy-duty fire hose next to it. But the hydrant required a special wrench, and the adapter was the wrong size. "So our fire hydrant did absolutely no good," Jackson said.
In the immediate aftermath, one canyon resident, Kevin McCoy, a charismatic veteran of the war in Kosovo who wears wide-brimmed hats, army-fatigue pants and a long wispy goatee, stood up on a table where the Canyon Inn had been and rallied the troops. He is credited for getting the community together and the recovery started. Others joined him, and the canyon was divided into quadrants with "zone coordinators" at the helm of each quadrant. Skyline Church began to lead the charitable effort, and other organizations, such as the Spring Valley Lion's Club, have followed suit.
On Saturday, a bearded man calling himself "Bafflin' Bill Cody" entertained children as the community center throbbed with activity. A elderly man, Bert Sharp, who lost his home-the same home that survived the Laguna fire in 1970-carried two orange buckets that would contain donated toys for his granddaughter. Volunteers erected a tarp to cover the piles of supplies as storm clouds gathered. Red Cross personnel processed victims. Chicken, hotdogs, chips, fruit, candy and muffins were laid out on tables, ready for the hungry.
Just after 3 p.m., McCoy climbed atop a table and began the meeting with some announcements, including word that a computer database had been established to account for the whereabouts of residents and the status of homes, and that a newsletter was in the works.
He lightheartedly asked folks not to shoot people who appear suddenly on their property-those are damage assessors. He stressed personal hygiene and warned that rains will likely cause flooding, which could contaminate the creek bed if rubble isn't properly disposed of. "We cannot fall below a certain standard," he urged.
Then he said, "Canyon folks have a lot of pride-a whole lotta pride," and broke down in tears. Unable to continue, he stepped down, accepted a hug and wandered off. Other organizers told CityBeat McCoy had been in near-constant motion, working day and night since the fire.
"This man needs a break," said Orozco into the microphone, as he took over the meeting.
Taking a break from her hunt for valuables, Nissa Jackson joked about how resilient coffee mugs are when engulfed in flames. She noted that charred books seem intact but fall apart when opened, and she excitedly told how she had found in the mess the diamonds she had gotten at "Padre Diamond Night" when she was little.
Jackson, a linguistics student at Grossmont College and a bookkeeper for JC Penny, says her parents will rebuild their house, but despite her love of Harbison Canyon, she's planning on settling elsewhere. "I'm going to find an apartment in El Cajon probably-get a second job, get on my feet."
Her mind went back to the morning of Oct. 26. "I was watching Scripps Ranch on TV," she said, "and I was watching some guy with a garden hose trying to save his house. He was mad because the fire department wasn't there....
"His house was going anyway, and I was just sitting here crying-I was in tears, bawling because it was so sad watching somebody lose their house. I had no idea it was going to come here."